D: Jocelyn Moorhouse / 119m
Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Kerry Fox, Shane Bourne, Alison Whyte, Caroline Goodall, James Mackay, Sacha Horler, Gyton Grantley, Julia Blake, Barry Otto, Rory Potter
It’s Australia, and it’s 1951. The tiny rural town of Dungatar sees the return of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (Winslet) after having been sent away as a child twenty-five years before for the suspected murder of Stewart Pettyman (Potter), the son of town councillor Evan Pettyman (Bourne). She’s back for two reasons: to look after her mother, Molly (Davis), who is suffering from dementia, and to discover the truth about what happened twenty-five years ago (Tilly doesn’t remember). The townsfolk aren’t exactly pleased to see her, with only Sergeant Farrat (Weaving) treating her fairly. Unconcerned, Tilly goes about caring for her mother, while also stirring things up around town, appearing in sexy, haute couture gowns and turning the heads of all the eligible and not-so-eligible men, and in particular, Teddy McSwiney (Hemsworth).
With the townsfolk treating her with suspicion and disrespect, she lets them know that she can make any of them bespoke dresses or outfits. Her first customer is young bride-to-be Gertrude Pratt (Snook). Going against her mother’s wishes, Gertrude is over the moon with the dress Tilly makes for her, and it’s not long before most of the women in town have followed suit. Pettyman employs the services of another dressmaker, Una Pleasance (Horler), but her efforts aren’t anywhere near as successful. Meanwhile, Tilly begins a tentative relationship with Teddy, while her mother’s memory improves, and her investigation into what happened to Stewart Pettyman starts to gather momentum.
Along the way, town secrets are exposed, simmering animosities boil over, and Tilly’s skills as a dressmaker serve as a way of exacting revenge for the way she was treated as a child. Answers are revealed, lives are changed irrevocably, a tragedy ensues, and Dungatar’s entry into a local Eisteddfod affords Tilly the opportunity to carry out her ultimate revenge.
An adaptation of the novel by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker is a mixed bag indeed. Combining drama, comedy and romance, and mashing them all together (sometimes in the same scene), it’s a movie that is likely to divide audiences into two camps: those who prefer to have their revenge dramas played entirely straight throughout, and those who prefer to have their comedies unspoiled by dramatic stretches that restrict the belly laughs found elsewhere. Your tolerance for this mash-up will depend very much on going with the movie’s very particular flow, as Moorhouse and her co-screenwriter, husband P.J. Hogan, have embraced both the jaundiced drama and the wicked comedy inherent in Ham’s novel.
The result is a movie that’s tonally uneven and switches focus from comedy to drama and back again with unrestrained abandon. Moorhouse concentrates on the humour during the first hour, and gifts Davis with some great lines, some of them throwaways that make you wish the actress had made more comedies before this. When Tilly tells Gertrude the cost of the dress she wants made, Gertrude remarks that the cost is “outrageous”. Quick as a flash, Molly says, “So’s your bum.” Davis’ timing is simply brilliant. There are other moments that are equally as funny, and the cast can be seen to be enjoying themselves tremendously during these scenes. But all good things must come to an end, and the movie’s second half slowly sheds the comedy in order to concentrate more fully, and with more necessity, on the drama.
But as well as shedding the humour, the script also sheds the shading and carefully orchestrated character beats, and leaves the viewer overwhelmed by increasing levels of melodrama. As well as the tragedy already alluded to, there is madness, murder, and extended bouts of retribution. There’s so much in fact, that Moorhouse struggles to find a way of making it all feel organic, with most scenes feeling forced by the need for resolution of the various subplots involving the townsfolk. By the time Tilly leaves Dungatar behind, the viewer may well be heaving a sigh of relief before laughing in gratitude at her final line of dialogue.
Thankfully, the movie’s flaws are more than compensated for by the performances. Davis steals the movie as the raddled, alcoholic, dementia-suffering Molly. It’s possibly the least glamorous role you’re likely to see for some time, but Davis is superb in it, caustic and sharp despite the dementia, and effortlessly dominating the scenes she’s in. Alongside her, Winslet gives another impressive performance, expressing Tilly’s determination and anger at how she was treated as a child, and yet also displaying an uncertainty and a mistrust surrounding her memories of her childhood. There are moments where Winslet is called upon to point up the character’s emotional fragility, and she does so in such an honest way that it’s entirely credible.
In support, Weaving is a delight as the crossdressing Sergeant Farrat, fey on the one hand, sturdy on the other, and a hoot as Rudolph Valentino. Hemsworth does enough to avoid giving an entirely wooden performance, but against Winslet still looks like a complete amateur. Further down the list there are good roles for, and good performances from, the likes of Kerry Fox as the acid-tongued schoolteacher, Bourne as the philandering town councillor, Blake as the ailing wife of the town’s doctor (Otto), Snook as the initially vapid but later viperish Gertrude, and Grantley as Teddy’s brother, Barney, who holds the key to what happened to Stewart Pettyman.
As befits a movie concerned with dressmaking, the costumes, designed by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson, are fantastic, beautiful creations that flatter and enhance the female cast they were made for in exactly the way they were meant to flatter and enhance the characters. Winslet gets to show off her curves in a variety of figure hugging outfits, and there’s one scene where the dress she wears is – in terms of the time in which the movie is set – a precursor to the one worn by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (1960). And the overall look of the movie is like that of a Western, with Tilly “riding” back into town as an avenging angel á la Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High (1968) or Pale Rider (1985). There are other references to other movies, some quite easy to spot, and some more subtly placed, but these don’t detract from the movie at all, but do add to the fun that can be had (in the first hour).
Rating: 7/10 – on balance, The Dressmaker‘s imbalance in terms of its storyline and tone should make this at least an awkward or unfulfilling watch, but somehow it’s a movie where it works more often than it doesn’t; with a standout turn from Davis, ravishing costumes, and a spare visual sense that suits the material, this is one of those movies where it’s unlikely for two different viewers to come to a consensus – but strangely, that’s one of its strengths.