Film Review – The Dressmaker
The Dressmaker popped onto my radar when a US release date was announced along with a new trailer. I have no idea why there was a Kate Winslet film I was unaware of, especially one that had already released in other countries. Color me amused at the comedic undertones and stunning costumes, this is a film that needed to be seen.
Set in 1951 rural Australia, specifically a small town named Dungatar, Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns to her hometown with revenge and questions on her mind. She was implicated in the death of a young schoolmate, a bully, but cannot remember a thing. She hopes her mom, Molly (Judy Davis), may help her with the blank spaces in what happened that day. However, her mom is “Mad Molly” and lives in a derelict house on the hill above town and is pretty much a dirty, unkempt shut-in. Much to the surprise and gossip of the townsfolk and the local police officer, Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), Tilly is back with her couture style and her sewing machine as her weapon.
From the very beginning, The Dressmaker sets itself apart from other films. It starts with a montage of a bus travelling through rural Australia, from above and the side, along with flashbacks from Tilly’s childhood. The music borders on Western, and for good reason. Tilly steps off the bus, lights a cigarette, and says, “I’m back, you bastards.”
The film wavers from comedy to drama, back and forth. In all seriousness, Tilly tries to figure out what happened to make her be sent off to boarding school at such a young age, away from her mother. She also grapples with her mother and her mental state. She has a suitor in younger Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth). Never mind her plan to get back at the townsfolk for what they have done to her and her mother. In that she strives to make herself needed, almost necessary, to make beautiful frocks for the local women.
It is in the drama that The Dressmaker takes it a bit too far. Granted, this is based on a novel by Rosalie Ham so director/writer Jocelyn Moorhouse may have been constrained by story laid out before her. It is like the story is bipolar, high points of comedy, followed by low points of sadness. Yes, you may shed a tear in one moment and be crying tears of laughter the next. It makes for an interesting timeline for a film, one like this that I don’t think I have ever experienced before. It is all enough to make you think Tilly is the most unlucky or cursed woman in the world, and that is the point.
In this film, two actors receive mention above all else. Judy Davis has again proven herself a superb, celebrated actress. In her portrayal of Molly, we are mystified, disgusted, made to laugh many times, forgive her, and above all fall in love with her. I would guess that the character of Molly would be a sought after character for any actress because there is so much going on in her mind and what has happened to her in the past. While Kate Winslet is a tour-de-force actress herself, I found myself waiting for Molly to come back on screen. The second actor is for the comedic relief, Hugo Weaving as Sergeant Farrat. He combines his tact in the law with his love for fabric and cross-dressing. The arrival of Tilly and all her dresses and fabric are like the heavens have smiled down upon Farrat. This may be one of Weaving’s greatest comedic roles. He is truly a delight.
No mention of The Dressmaker is complete without those beautiful dresses. While I question how Tilly could finish so many fine frocks in a short amount of time and with limited resources, the results (and there are many of them) are something to be admired. The costumes are the result of costume designers Marion Boyce (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) and Margot Wilson (Lawless, The Road).
The Dressmaker is a complicated film due to its wavering tones, but it is worth the ride. While Kate Winslet may be the lead actress and the central character of the film, this is also an ensemble cast whose many characters make up an eclectic little town, both rich and poor, ugly and beautiful. You are in for one hell of a story with Tilly Dunnage and the town of Dungatar.