The Dressmaker (2015)

The Dressmaker (2015)
  • Time: 118 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
  • Cast: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving


Based on Rosalie Ham’s best selling novel, The Dressmaker is the story of femme fatale Tilly Dunnage who returns to her small home town in the country to right the wrongs of the past. A stylish drama with comic undertones about love, revenge and haute couture.

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  • What exactly is going on with The Dressmaker, which alternates between bonkers and boring. An adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel by P.J. Hogan and director Jocelyn Moorhouse, returning after an almost 20-year absence, the film is all over the place. One minute it’s a twist on a spaghetti western, the next it’s a revenge drama, then a family drama, then a small-town tragedy, then a murder mystery. Oh, and it’s also a Cinderella story of sorts and a May-December romance. All this and more doused with heaps of camp.

    “I’m back, you bastards” are the first words out of Tilly Dunnage’s mouth (Kate Winslet) as she surveys her dusty backwater hometown of Dungatar, Australia. It is 1951 and Tilly has returned after having worked in the finest haute couture houses during her exile, enforced by the community after she’s accused of killing a boy. “Did I commit a murder? Is that why I’m cursed?” she asks her mother Molly (Judy Davis) upon their reunion. Her mother, who has gone batty and forgetful, has no interest in digging up the past; she can barely take care of herself much less remember her prodigal child.

    Tilly is determined to get the answers and sets about making her presence known to the townsfolk, who are unmoored by her reappearance. It’s no surprise, considering Tilly parades around in figure-hugging outfits, sunglasses, crimson lips possessing an ever-present cigarette, and a general attitude of badassery. The older women have no compunction calling her a murderer and a trollop, though they quickly set aside their carping once they witness Tilly’s skills at transforming the plainer than plain Gertrude (Sarah Snook) into someone who looks to have stepped out of a movie screen.

    Not everyone needs too much convincing to welcome her back. There’s Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), a closeted crossdresser who is practically orgasmic at the sight of Tilly’s Dior-like outfits and every new delivery of fabric. Weaving’s involvement reunites him with Moorhouse, who directed him and Russell Crowe in the brilliant Proof, but it also recalls The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and its companions of Nineties Aussie quirk such as Welcome to Woop Woop and Muriel’s Wedding. The Dressmaker strives to be a spiritual sibling to those raucously irreverent works, but can only be a distant cousin. Though its narrative is surprisingly coherent given the number of story strands, the film is tonally bewildering with several scenes of rape and murder sometimes played for laughs.

    On the plus side, Liam Hemsworth is the best he’s ever been as Tilly’s hunky love interest. Now that may not be saying much, but this is the first time he has not been besieged by blandness. Hemsworth should insist on never using any accent but his own as the extra effort of putting on an accent seems to leech him of his natural charm. He sparks with and without Winslet who, along with Davis, anchors the film with a typically fine performance. Both actresses brim with confidence. Davis is an absolute scene-stealer, but she doesn’t merely rely on the character’s eccentricities. She crafts a multi-dimensional portrait of a woman whose faculties may not always be reliable, but whose maternal instincts are well and truly intact.

    Winslet revels in the femme fatale aspect of her character, and it’s a pleasure to watch her delight in being a harbinger of doom. Yet she also engenders much empathy as Tilly attempts to reconnect with her mother and to understand what truly happened in the past. There’s a wonderful moment when Winslet dissolves into a little girl grateful for her mother’s love as Tilly and Molly work on a dress together. One wishes that she, Davis, Hemsworth, and Weaving had been better served by this well-costumed car crash of a movie.

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