The Dressmaker

THE DRESSMAKER. Starring: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Shane Bourne, Kerry Fox, Alison Whyte, and Barry Otto. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Rated M (Mature themes, violence, coarse language and sexual references). 119 min.

This Australian drama of unfolding intrigue was filmed in country Victoria, and is based on the best selling novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham in 2000. It tells the story of a glamorous dressmaker, who returns in the early 1950s to the fictional Victorian town of Dungatar to explore the past and to make contact again with her unstable mother, who she thinks has wronged her.

Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage (Kate Winslet) is the "dressmaker" of the film's title, and she is accused of killing a firmer classmate of hers by her mother, Molly (Judy Davis). Widely believed to be responsible for the boy's murder, Tilly was exiled in disgrace by her home town at the age of ten, and feels she is a "cursed" woman. Tilly is Molly's illegitimate daughter. Molly suffers from dementia and mostly doesn't remember Tilly, and generally dislikes her when she does, but Tilly needs Molly to remember.

Tilly arrives as a Parisian-trained seamstress, fashion designer and dressmaker. Not welcomed by anyone, especially Molly, she uses her special skills to dress the women in the town appealingly, and they begin to respond positively when she transforms the way they look. Walking through the fields, with her Singer sewing machine, Tilly provides a vivid image of a glamorous woman dressed incongruously for stylish revenge. Her clothes are dramatic, and the Singer sewing machine that she carries in her hand provides an image that is loaded with Aussie nostalgia.

This film is not your run-of-the-mill revenge drama. Its plot is layered with complexity. It aims for comedy as well as revenge, and it exposes the viewer to a wide array of very odd people. The film's plot and character complexity are evident in many ways. The local Police Officer, Sergeant Horatio Farratt (Hugo Weaving) is a cross-dresser, who tries to come to grips personally with why fabrics and women's clothes are so attractive to him. Several malevolent people in the town clearly have things to hide. Romance blossoms when the local, handsome football hero, Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and Tilley fall for each other. The body count rises as the plot develops. And all these themes rival each other to keep the viewer's attention occupied throughout the film.

Dungatar is a haven of gossip, prejudice, and innuendo. A traumatised mother (Alison Whyte) is deliberately kept ignorant by her husband, Evan (Shane Bourne), of what happened to the boy Tilly is accused of killing. In town, there is a resident fanatic (Barry Otto), an abusive schoolteacher (Kerry Fox), and Sergeant Farratt covets Tilly's collection of clothes and "was betrayed for a wardrobe". The plot shifts from revenge to high fashion, from death to romance and back to death again, from repressed desire to ferocious acting-out, and finally to the reconciliation of mother and daughter. The film finds it hard to keep all these threads together, but it adopts the interesting device of caricaturing odd people to convey them as colourful Australian characters.

Despite the complexity of plot and character, Kate Winslet acts a strong and determined woman with complete confidence and aplomb. She is supported very ably by Judy Davis as her eccentric, (occasionally) demented mother. Sarah Snook is great as an example of what Tilly can do in turning a plain-looking woman into someone everybody thinks looks terrific. And the clothes are fabulous, thanks to the skill of the film's talented costume designer, Margot Wilson. Most of Tilly's creations are wildly impractical and totally unsuitable for an outback town like Dungatar, but they give a colourful and intriguing look of "haute couture" to a group of rather unpleasant people.

The film is a mix of different themes and unexpected happenings, but its Director (Jocelyn Moorehouse) uses melodrama effectively to emphasise moments of high drama, and there are lots of them. Moorehouse gave us a more coherent and psychologically insightful movie in "Proof" (1991) than this one, but this is a film that has been created with enormous style, and is very watchable and highly entertaining.  

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Universal Pictures

Released October 29th., 2015

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