The Dressmaker

October 29, 2015
Kate Winslet in 'The Dressmaker' (2015)
Kate Winslet in 'The Dressmaker' (2015)

There has been an 18-year gap between The Dressmaker and Jocelyn Moorhouse’s previous film, A Thousand Acres (1997), with a promising career being derailed by family matters. Although Moorhouse had intended to make an earlier comeback, with an adaptation of Murray Bail’s novel, Eucalyptus in 2005, this project turned into a shipwreck with as much blood-letting as the grounding of the Batavia.

The Dressmaker is no less of a fable than Eucalyptus, but it is a more accessible novel – the kind of story Murray Bail would wincingly describe as “a good read”. The movie follows a similar path, as a brisk entertainment that never gets far beneath the surface. Yet for most audiences this is all that is desired of a night at the pictures.

We meet the protagonist, Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (Kate Winslet) as she arrives in a one-horse hamlet in the wheat belt. It’s the 1950s, and this is Dungatar, a community of small minds in which everyone knows everyone else’s business.

Tilly has returned to settle old scores and find out the truth about the incident that forced her to leave town at the age of ten. She is like a gun slinger in a western who has come home to exact revenge, although her preferred weapon is not a six shooter but a Singer sewing machine. “I’m back, you bastards,” she growls.

First stop is the old homestead on the hill where her mother, Mad Molly, lives in abject squalor. Judy Davis is a specialist with curmudgeons, but even for her Molly is hard core. Prone to outbursts of abuse and violence she resists fiercely as Tilly sets about cleaning up both house and parent.

Next comes the the nerve-wracking business of getting reacquainted with the natives, from Mr. Abacus (Barry Otto), the spiteful old hunchback who runs the pharmacy, to Beulah Harridiene (Kerry Fox), the schoolmistress who ruined Tilly’s childhood. There are the Pratts, who own the general store, and Elsbeth Beaumont (Caroline Goodall), an appalling snob, who can find no suitable match for her son, William, in Dungatar.

Fortunately Tilly also has her admirers, chief among them being Sargeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) the dandyfied policeman, who loves to frock up in secret; and Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) number one son of the impoverished McSwiney clan, and local football hero.

During her twenty years’ absence from Dungatar, Tilly has been living in Paris, learning the art of haute couture. She is aware of the transforming power of fashion, and – for reasons that are never quite clear – begins to seduce the suspicious townfolk with her dressmaking skills. After seeing the gown Tilly wears to the football grand final, Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) decides that’s what she needs to snare William Beaumont.

Soon Tilly has a procession of paying customers but still cannot live down the accusation that she murdered Stewart Pettyman, the ten-year-old son of the sleazy Councillor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne), and his neurotic wife, Marigold (Alison Whyte). When the Councillor brings in another dressmaker, Una Pleasance (Sacha Horler), the couture wars begin, transforming Dungatar into a fashion theme park.

While this is happening Tilly is gradually succumbing to Teddy’s charm, and Molly is being tamed. For a brief moment it seems that the prodigal may have found a different side to Dungatar, but there will be no ‘happy ever after’ conclusion. As the truth about Tilly’s past is revealed the story takes a series of dark twists.

Much of the pleasure of this movie resides in its cast of grotesque characters, from Winslet’s steely heroine, to Davis’s off-the-rails performance as Molly, and Weaving’s campest turn since Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). The plot doesn’t bear too much scrutiny as it seems highly unlikely anyone would return from Paris to take revenge on the denizens of Dungatar. We have to believe Tilly has an obsession with the past that needs to be exorcised, however this town isn’t a hive of evil hombres from a spaghetti western, it’s a menagerie.

One detects the hand of Moorhouse’s spouse and co-scriptwriter, P.J. Hogan, (director of Muriel’s Wedding), in some of the broad Australian comedy. The movie is packed with stereotypes that have been pushed to the brink of absurdity, making it difficult to feel empathy for anyone. No matter what happens, there is a pervasive air of unreality. When tragedy arrives it feels just as weightless as every other part of the story.

Such artifice has its own brittle charm, and The Dressmaker, which crams about twelve different genres into 118 minutes, is never dull. On the contrary, while it may not be profound, it is as strange and surprising as a fashion show in the desert.

The Dressmaker
Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Written by P.J.Hogan & Jocelyn Moorhouse, after a novel by Rosalie Ham
Starring Kate Winslett, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Shane Jacobsen, Rebecca Gibney, Barry Otto
Australia rated M, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 31st October, 2015.