Think of quirky Australian comedies and movies like THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT; “CROCODILE” DUNDEE and MURIEL’S WEDDING should come to mind. Yes, the Land Down Under is good at making this genre of film. Now comes THE DRESSMAKER, which Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse (PROOF) has called “Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN with a sewing machine”.
That’s a fairly apt description. In the film, Kate Winslet (STEVE JOBS) plays Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage, a glamourous, young woman who returns to her childhood home in the fictional, one-kangaroo town of Dungatar, Australia, to reconnect with her mother, “Mad” Molly (Judy Davis, THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET), and to seek vengeance on the townspeople who sent her away 20 years earlier when she was eight years old. (If you’re thinking, Wait a sec. Isn’t Kate Winslet about 40?, yes, she is. Just go with it though.) Armed with just a suitcase full of fabrics and her trusty Singer sewing machine, she plans to get to the bottom of the general belief that she killed her classmate, Stewart Pettyman, in the schoolyard. Tilly’s problem is that she can’t seem to remember what happened. The townspeople, though, can’t seem to forget.
It only takes seconds before word spreads that Tilly is back. She decides to make her grand entrance at the town’s Australian Rules Football match against its cross-outback rival, Winyerp. Wearing a sizzling red dress that hugs her body in all the right places, not only do her neighbours notice her, the opposing team does too. Needless to say, Dungatar wins the match with the handsome Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth, THE HUNGER GAMES series) scoring the winning kick in the game’s dying seconds.
Reconnecting with Molly, proves to be a daunting task for Tilly, as the old woman has gone a bit batty from decades of being the town’s pariah. Reconnecting with the townspeople, however, goes much smoother as every woman in Dungatar wants one of Tilly’s haute couture creations. Virtually overnight, the womenfolk all look like they just returned from an all-expense paid trip to the Champs Elysees. But while Tilly can transform a woman’s exterior, she doesn’t stand a chance when it comes to changing her neighbours’ opinion of her. While they plot her downfall just as they did twenty years earlier, Tilly prepares for battle.
There is a lot that’s good about THE DRESSMAKER but there’s also a lot that’s not so good. As a black comedy it does very well. The pacing is fast, the dialogue is witty, the camera angles are perfect and the costumes would even make Tim Gunn gush with delight. Winslet and Davis, as always, turn in great performances as the vengeful femme fatale and her wildly eccentric mother, respectively. Hugo Weaving (PRISCILLA), too, shines as the town’s cross-dressing constable, Sergeant Farrat. (Weaving seems to be making a career out of dressing in women’s clothes.) The film falters, though, when it veers into drama and romance territory. In the case of the former, when the film gets too serious, it completely falls flat. For the latter, as much as some women (and perhaps a few men) might enjoy seeing Hemsworth stripped down to his boxers, his role is wasted. I haven’t read the book that the film is based upon but if I was writing the screenplay, I would either write his character out altogether or provide more details of his and Tilly’s childhood friendship. It’s never made clear why she trusts him now. (The same can be said about her relationship with Farrat, as he was the one who sent her packing years earlier. Perhaps their shared love of all things sartorial was reason enough to forgive him.)
On the whole, though, THE DRESSMAKER is a mildly above-average film and well worth seeing. It’s just not in the same league as its Australian comedic counterparts.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 34:30.)
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