Now a glamorous young woman, Tilly (Kate Winslet) returns to her small town in rural Australia some years after having been sent away as a child under traumatic circumstances. With her sewing machine and haute couture style, she transforms the women and exacts sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.
Review by Louise Keller:
Comedy and tragedy sit side by side in Jocelyn Moorhouse's adaptation of Rosalie Ham's novel about small towns, revenge and fashion. This is Moorhouse's first Australian film since Proof in 1991, which canvassed the complex relationship between Hugo Weaving's blind protagonist, his emotionally cruel housekeeper (Genevieve Picot) and honest friend (Russell Crowe). Weaving and Picot appear again here. Two American films (How to Make an American Quilt, 1995 and A Thousand Acres, 1997) followed.
With the exception of the film's protagonist Myrtle 'Tilly' Dunnage, beautifully played by Kate Winslet and her lover Teddy (Liam Hemsworth, appealing), all the small town's characters are larger than life and play it for laughs. This approach works better at times than others: at times the tone sits awkwardly with the content. The construct is apparent so the characters seem to be just that - characters and caricatures in a surreal reality. Perhaps some of the characters could have been pruned to avoid the inevitable confusion as to who is whom and how they fit into the tale in which murder and betrayal are the underlying themes. The emotional impact suffers as a result.
Set in the fictitious country town of Dungatar in 1951, the film begins with a symbolically dark night sky that heralds the ominous return of Tilly, 'the girl who moved away' years ago. 'I'm back; you bastards', she announces. The Singer sewing machine she carries - together with her dressmaking talents - are her tools for revenge. The black sky reflects the intended black humour with which the tale is liberally doused.
Hugo Weaving (Moorhouse's star from Proof) is a hoot as the local cross dressing cop who thrives and delights in Dior and feather boas. Weaving, flaunting a pencil-thin moustache and a discerningly natural effervescence is arguably the best thing in the film. Picot appears as one of the Three Little Maids in a rendition of Gilbert & Sullivan's well known tune. And then there is Judy Davis, fearless and almost unrecognisable as Tilly's reclusive mother Mad Molly, who 'doesn't get out much these days' and hides under squalor. Davis delivers in spades.
It's about ghosts of the past and unspoken secrets and the small town hatred and resentment that have blossomed into a gnarled tree of emotional destruction. Dressmaking, rivalries and hatred drive the narrative. The cast is all excellent and includes the extraordinary Sarah Snook, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Shane Jacobson, Julia Blake and Barry Otto. Special mention to Sacha Horler who has a fine presence as the local dressmaker intent on delivering style and decency.
I wanted to like the film more, but the in-your-face tone kept me at arm's length. Moorhouse is a great talent and her collaboration with husband P.J. Hogan in writing the screenplay (Hogan is credited as second unit director) is brave in many ways. The film with its rural Victorian setting looks wonderful (Donald McAlpine is the cinematographer) and Roger Ford's production design captures the essence of the era. David Hirschfelder's music score echoes the disgruntled tone of the characters.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The little outback town where the story is set is a shithole aptly called Dungetar according to the railway station sign we see as Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) arrives all flash in her 50s glamour. (The dunny references may be missed by international audiences, but not by Aussies.) It is quickly apparent that this black farce is every bit as scathing and tragic as Muriel's Wedding, whose author and director J. P. Hogan (director Jocelyn Moorhouse's partner) helped write the screenplay based on Rosalie Ham's book.
It's a story of small town hates, lies and betrayals whose victims are many but none so wronged as is Tilly. It's her story: she has a score to settle, and being a clever fashion designer these days, she does it in true female style - with warring wardrobe. You could say she came (back), she sewed, she conquered.
The Dressmaker is the kind of film that might have been made by Pedro Almodovar, both for its melodramatic story complete with family secrets and for its wicked tone - as well as some notable excesses (eg Hugo Weaving's fetishist local cop Sgt Farrat [ha ha]). It is as risky, too, with deaths and disabilities crowding the frame. Winslet, co-star Liam Hemsley and Sarah Snook in her post-transformed state aside, it is also peopled by decidedly ugly characters ... probably more than Almodovar would have chosen.
The already mentioned cast as well as the remainder have given their all in weird and wonderful ways, sometimes defying us to even recognise them at first, eg Judy Davis as Tilly's wheelchair bound mother, Molly, whose physical frailty hides a sharp and fearless tongue. Sacha Horler is a scene stealer as competing dressmaker Una Pleasance, Kerry Fox is odious as the nasty Beulah and Genevieve Lemon is heartbreaking as Mae, the mother of Hemsworth's Teddy.
Hemsworth himself has the hard task of playing a normal, handsome young man without notable flaws, always a challenge for actors to make a mark, while Winslet has just the right mix of chutzpah and vulnerability to make her Tilly a credible and dynamic character.
Moorhouse has a clear vision for the material and a great team to help her achieve it, right across the departments, from the clever, sometimes unsettling score by David Hirschfelder to Jill Bilcock's unerring editing choices, Roger Ford's playful design and Donald McAlpine's wonderful lighting cinematography. Enjoy.
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DRESSMAKER, THE (M)
CAST: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Judy Davis, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley, James Mackay, Barry Otto, Julia Blake, Sacha Horler, Shane Bourne
PRODUCER: Sue Maslin
DIRECTOR: Jocelyn Moorhouse
SCRIPT: P.J. Hogan, Jocelyn Moorhouse (novel by Rosalie Ham)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Donald McAlpine
EDITOR: Jill Bilcock
MUSIC: David Hirschfelder
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Roger Ford
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 29, 2015