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Review: Lifetime's 'House of Versace' does high drama in style

There are a number of things one might want or expect from a TV biopic about designer Donatella Versace starring Gina Gershon and Raquel Welch. And none is subtlety, complexity or an enlightening look into the mechanics of the fashion world. "House of Versace," premiering Saturday on Lifetime, does not disoblige.

Arguments and tantrums in Italian accents, on the other hand, the main character sloppy on drugs, a make-or-break challenge leading to a sentimental feel-good finish? Check, check and, yes, check.

"If I hadn't quit school to come help you, you'd be Gianni Versace, the best-dressed costumer at the opera house in Reggio Calabria," resident muse and celebrity liaison Donatella (Gershon) spits at her designer brother (Enrico Colantoni). But who can say, really?

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Directed by Sara Sugarman ("Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen") from a screenplay by Rama Laurie Stagner adapting Deborah Ball's well-received book, "House of Versace" suffers from the usual elisions, expositions and economies of TV biopics. And yet it is not the train wreck it might have been — it attempts, at least, to take things seriously — or indeed, should have been. But it does rise, which is to say lower, itself to the occasion often enough.

"I know what it feels like to be a woman — something you will never be," Donatella says to Gianni (who is gay and dotes on her daughter).

"And you know what you will never be?" he replies. "An artist."

That is the central dramatic question of this film.

Although they are given few scenes that suggest actual (if extraordinary) humans going about their lives, the players are first-rate. Along with Gershon, Colantoni and Welch — as wise old, hot Aunt Lucia she makes up in undimmed Welchiness what she lacks comparatively as an actress — the cast includes Colm Feore as less-fabulous, business-minding brother Santo Versace and Donna Murphy as head seamstress Maria, whose simple beauty and grounded manner act as a counterpoint to Donatella's cosmetic enhancements and portable state of crisis.

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This is Gershon's second swipe at the role, if you count her Donatella-based Fabia in "Ugly Betty," a more vivid variation on the character. Here, in her lank blond wig and increasingly plumped lips, she resembles no one so much as Muppet Janice, from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

After Gianni is randomly murdered outside his Florida mansion, we embark on a classic fall-and-rise story, with a cocaine-fueled, free-spending Donatella failing to fill her brother's shoes and Santo helpless to rein her in. Result: Workforce alienated, bankers grumbling, family alarmed.

"Christopher Bailey has made Burberry so popular that dogs are shopping for trench coats," Santos says to her. "And what have you done? Destroyed a legacy!"

We know she has talent, though, because earlier when Gianni is stuck on a dress she rips off the sleeve and makes it great. But she will have to be humbled before she can truly create.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'House of Versace'

Where: Lifetime

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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