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The dressing-mirror montage has become a cliché of drag filmmaking, the camera lingering on the process of the drag queen applying her make-up and finessing her outfit in a simplistic supposed expression of both technical mastery and fabulous transformation. A sequence in Lee Cooper’s documentary Maisie offers something less familiar. We cut between two performers getting ready for a show in Brighton: Maisie Trollette, at 84 the UK’s oldest performing drag artiste, and Oregon’s Darcelle XV, at 87 holder of the Guinness record for the world’s oldest drag act.

Each is in their element yet also testy, decades of experience chafing against bodies in decline, and each is assisted by a helper – Maisie’s producer Allan Cardew, Darcelle’s daughter Maridee – who has clearly learned how to negotiate the resultant conditions without calamity. There are various delicate and laborious kinds of craft, skill, patience and care going on here as tights are navigated over unreliable legs, shoehorns applied to forgivingly structured flats, chandelier earrings gaffer-taped onto fleshy lobes. There’s nothing effortless about any of this; the aesthetic, the relational and the mechanical come together to make something remarkable.

Maisie is at its strongest in this observational register, spending time with Maisie’s creator and performer David Raven at his Brighton home and in rehearsal and performance with friends and fellow established drag acts such as Miss Jason and Miss Dave Lynn. On stage, Maisie remains a powerful presence: she can still belt out a ribald twist on a classic showtune with conviction and control, while offering catty banter and touching observations. In daily life, Raven is not always so confident, leaning on a network of chosen family as he balances the performance work he loves with medication, gardening and chores. Often grouchy, frail and frustrated, he’s also vulnerable, self-aware and evidently still not to be messed with.

Raven’s career is an extraordinary one, more or less paralleling the trajectory of British drag from the panto and music-hall influences of the postwar decades to the dominance of the RuPaul’s Drag Race aesthetic today. But the film offers little contextualisation of either the wider drag scene or Raven’s own life, with minimal use of talking heads, archival material or even personal reminiscence. A little more of this might have helped locate and deepen the resonance of the fly-on-the-wall material but much still comes through, including the bone-deep impact of surviving a hellish epidemic and growing up in an era of shame. To this day, we’re told, Raven would never ask directions to a gay bar by name.

► Maisie is in UK cinemas from Friday; it is also available to stream on BFI Player and Bohemia Euphoria from Friday.