Think anarchic black comedy, add small town period drama, throw in a dash of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and stir liberally and you have the ingredients of an Aussie tall tale. Based on the best-selling novel by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker is a bittersweet Australian yarn.
It is 1951. Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) is a beautiful, talented misfit, who has been working as a dressmaker in Europe for the great haute couture designers. She returns home to Dungatar, a one-horse town deep in the wheat belt of southeastern Australia. After 20 years away, Tilly has revenge in her heart. She is out to right the wrongs of the past that continue to haunt her and to look after her ailing, eccentric mother Mad Molly (Judy Davis). Cabin-crazed, bitter, grasping and small-minded, the town’s folk maintain a precarious equilibrium, as they know that their secrets are not safe. When Tilly arrives back, the balance starts to shift. Signs of trouble come in the form of extravagant fabrics, which start arriving from France, delivered to Dungatar in exotic tea chests. The local constabulary, in the form of Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), is the first to develop a special, breathless interest in Tilly’s magical way with thread and silk. He becomes something of a buffer between Tilly and the residents, who haven’t forgotten the tragedy they believe Tilly caused as a child, tearing the town apart and leading to her exile. Tilly feels instinctively that she was wronged, but she also believes she is cursed and can’t clearly remember what happened. The Dungatarians are drawn in by Tilly’s bewitching skills of transformation and slowly she extracts from them the information necessary to piece together the truth. But there are many twists in store. Along the way and against her better judgment, Tilly falls for football hero Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth).
The Dressmaker was Rosalie Ham’s first novel. She attended a writing course and was told to write a practice novel that probably wouldn’t see the light of day because people don’t often get their initial work published. Ham was fine with that and thought she would just throw everything into it – all the big themes, like death, marriage and betrayal. And so Tilly Dunnage, her mother Molly and the fictional town of Dungatar were born.
The character of Tilly seems drawn, at least in part, from Rosalie’s mother. He mum was a dressmaker in Jerilderie. She happened to be divorced and so there was a certain amount of scandal that was attached to that. She had to make a living as a seamstress. And Ham saw the difference in her role as the seamstress as opposed to the other ladies who were in the hierarchy of the town that wanted beautiful frocks made by her.
What a zany script and an opportunity for a familiar group of Australian actors, joined by international star Kate Winslet, to let down their hair. Other than those I have already mentioned, I am talking about Caroline Goodall, Shane Bourne, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Sacha Horler, Shane Jacobson, Alison Whyte, Genevieve Lemon, Barry Otto and Sarah Snook. Both Winslet and Judy Davis appear to have been born with the “earnest” gene, for whether seeking revenge or playing “crazy momma” they inhabit their characters like few others could.
This is a perfect vehicle for costume designers and make up artists to showcase their talent and that they do … and how. In many cases, their job is to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse (in other words age and “ugly” the actors before beautifying them). Seeing these women “frocked up” with dirt all around them in the middle of nowhere is a sight for sore eyes – what a hoot! And I shouldn’t just be commenting on the women here because new age sensitive cop Hugo Weaving cross-dressing and getting excited about froufrou and feathers is an undoubted highlight.
The Dressmaker hits you like a lightning bolt (I had a similar reaction when watching Priscilla: Queen of the Desert). Much of it is deliberately over-the-top nonsense and it probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but then there’ll be those – such as a couple in front of me –who will find it one big belly laugh. I enjoyed its playful quality, although I thought the story was too drawn out and could easily have been tightened.
Written by Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, How to Make an American Quilt) and her husband PJ Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding), The Dressmaker has a fantasy quality to it. You could call it tall tales but untrue from the legendary past.
Rated M, The Dressmaker scores a 7½ out of 10.
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving and Liam Hemsworth
Release Date: 29 October 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television