Jocelyn Moorhouse’s “The Dressmaker” is a movie about the hope that time, skill and fashion can garner enough influence to illuminate and rinse away the curses of fatal follies of youth. It’s also a work of weird incongruity, of light and darkness, of repressed memory and illuminating couture. Hand in hand you have moments of classic Hollywood of old fashioned courting and romance; and moments later tragedy that feels like you’re strapped into a chair alone with Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre from “Casino Royale.”
“The Dressmaker” opens with the mesmerising beauty of Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) , silently creeping back into her hometown, Dungatar. We learn that she’s returning from a banishment of sorts. In her youth she was blamed from the death of a classmate, the son of the town’s pre-eminent man (Shane Bourne); but she cannot remember the events. Her mother, Mad Molly, lives in their now run down mess of a home. She’s there to clean house, to bring fashion to the squalor and in exchange reveal her past and hopefully win over the town’s folk who only see her as a reformed murderer. Tilly is intent on being her and bringing who she is back to her home town, to earn her epiphany.
Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), immediately reveals himself to be a proto-Queen, cross dressing police officer; their town’s very own J. Edgar Hoover. Seeing the great man swan about hits you right in the “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” happy memory reservoir. There’s such a beautiful exchange between the two characters that speaks to those of us in transition, in pursuit of dreams.
Sergent Farrat says: “you’re wasted here.”
Tilly replies with beautiful melancholy; “but here, is where I am.”
Writers P.J. Hogan (“Muriel’s Wedding,” “Mental”) and Moorhouse relish the bubbling conflict beneath the quintessentially Australian tolerance of completely bat-shit crazy, or just plain backward to go about their business without fuss, rather than appear rude by calling them on their shite. The stain of British class structure is present in this town, paired with the harsh reality is that if they can’t cooperate, there’s a mutually assured destruction.
The contrast of glorious Parisian fashion against the dusty scrub only heightens Tilly’s talent. While the small population slowly become adorned with garb that they feel better suits their station/personality; there’s still a feeling that these outfits, like costumes, have revealed and amplified their personalities. The town’s folk have gone from quietly backstabbing one and other like rodents or roaches scuttling through the cracks and crevices of their wooden shacks; to theatrically sweeping their trains into the dust-bowl Dungatar streets, like the stage of an Opera House, to pronounce their prejudices.
Winslet is superb as Tilly. If her role was only measured by absolutely crushing the Australian accent, then it would be a triumph. In addition to that feat, she is able make you deeply empathise with this ‘killer’ and constantly yearn for the town’s accusations to be false. Liam Hemsworth is as charming as he’s ever been as the town’s best manTeddy McSwiney. He wants to sweep Tilly off of her feet, and out of town and he may just have the heat to make her determination wilt. Judy Davis’ ‘Mad’ Molly Dunnage, Tilly’s mother, is drawn out of the madness that her years of isolation and loneliness have cultivated. Sarah Snook’s Gertrude Pratt benefits from the transformative power and influence that Tilly’s fashion can wield. Snook has to be one of Australia’s most versatile and best actors working today. The rest of the eccentrics in Dungatar are filled out beautifully by the rest of the ensemble Shane Bourne, Rebecca Gibney, Barry Otto, Gyton Grantly Julia Blake and Alison Whyte.
“The Dressmaker” wraps a pig pen of a town and its porky inhabitants in silk. It tackles the feeling of being cursed by your confines and the toxicity of small town gossip mongering; with beauty, death, romance and hilarity.
Directed by: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Written by: P.J. Hogan and Jocelyn Moorhouse (based on the novel by Rosalie Ham)
Kate Winslet ... Tilly Dunnage
Judy Davis ... Molly Dunnage
Liam Hemsworth ... Teddy McSwiney
Hugo Weaving ... Sergeant Farrat
Julia Blake ... Irma Almanac
Shane Bourne ... Evan Pettyman
Kerry Fox ... Beulah Harridiene
Rebecca Gibney ... Muriel Pratt
Caroline Goodall ... Elsbeth Beaumont
Gyton Grantley ... Barney McSwiney
Tracy Harvey ... Lois Pickett
Sacha Horler ... Una Pleasance
Shane Jacobson ... Alvin Pratt
Geneviève Lemon ... Mae McSwiney
James Mackay ... William Beaumont
Hayley Magnus ... Prudence Harridene
Terry Norris ... Septimus
Barry Otto ... Mr. Almanac
Rory Potter ... Stewart Pettyman
Sarah Snook ... Gertrude Pratt
Alison Whyte ... Marigold Pettyman
Darcey Wilson ... Young Tilly
Mark Leonard Winter ... Reginald Blood
Amanda Woodhams ... Nancy Pickett