Synopsis: A glamorous woman returns to her small town in rural Australia. With her sewing machine and haute couture style, she transforms the women and exacts sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.
Stars: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Judy Davis, Caroline Goodall
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Running Length: 119 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Watching The Dressmaker made me think back to a different time…not just the time when the haute couture fashions on display were commonplace but just a hop and a skip back to the mid 90s. That’s when there was a big influx of films imported from down under, mostly wacky comedies like Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and dramas such as Shine. There’s just some particular Australian sensibility that plays like a genre unto itself, a fearlessness to sketch outsider characters that don’t have to be sympathetic or hyper-broad to engage us.
I’d almost forgotten about The Dressmaker, having posted my thoughts on its preview over a year ago. When its October 2015 release date passed, I all but put it out of my mind…save for a nagging worry in wondering why it didn’t open stateside as planned. Either I had the dates wrong or the pushback was deliberate because there’s certainly nothing wrong with this dark dramedy that scored a record 13 nominations at the Australian Oscars (that’s 1 more than Mad Max: Fury Road received, by the by).
The rural Australian outback is likened to our Old West and that ties in nicely with The Dressmaker’s operatic overtones. While it’s not an outright Western and there’s no horses, spittoons, or cowboy hats on display the film is very much in that vein, delighting in its revenge tale and maximizing the mystery surrounding a woman returning to town with a score to settle.
Arriving without notice in her one horse town in the dead of night, Tilly’s (Kate Winslet, Labor Day) first line, “I’m back you bastards.”, is delivered through an exhale of crisp cigarette smoke. It’s clear something bad happened here and through a series of flashbacks Tilly’s history with the town and its secrets comes to light. But first…there’s work to be done.
Her first stop is to the ramshackle house on the hill where her aged mother lives. Not recognizing her glamorous daughter at first (and continuing to deny knowing her long after she connects the dots), Molly (Judy Davis) gets scrubbed up and her clap trap home receives a good cleaning. The town is full of gossips, busybodies, crooked councilmen, and an array of other tightly wired curiosities…none of which are the least bit happy to see Tilly’s return. The only folk showing some interest is Teddy (Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2, dreamy to look at but at least a decade too young to play Winslet’s peer) and the cross-dressing town sergeant (Hugo Weaving, Cloud Atlas) who gets the first big laugh of the film with an unexpected exclamation.
Though they still prefer to keep her at a distance, Tilly’s transformative way with a needle and thread revitalizes the fickle women of the town who are willing to let bygones be bygones as long as they look good doing it. The past comes back to haunt them all, though, when old scars are opened and fresh wounds revealed, culminating in an unusually satisfying finale that successfully ties off a whole host of loose ends.
With her impressive Australian accent, Winslet fits right in as a woman who sticks out. Her fair white skin is a perfect contrast to the weather beaten sun scorched faces of a past clan she’s left behind but can’t quite escape. Weaving and Caroline Goodall are lively while Sarah Snook (Jessabelle) transforms from an ugly duckling to a glamorous swan with a dark side. The movie truly belongs to Davis, though, in a performance that deserves major award recognition. Nailing each laugh and then some, she’s the one you’ll be watching whenever she’s onscreen.
If there’s fault here, it’s that director Jocelyn Moorhouse (adapting the screenplay from the novel by Rosalie Ham) lets the film go on longer than it has to. Reaching its first climax about 75 minutes in, there’s still 45 more minutes for the wheels to grind and sputter before finding some fire as it leads up to the finale. All in all, it’s a minor problem to have when the rest of the elements are so solid. The Dressmaker hasn’t arrived in the US with much fanfare but here’s hoping that, like it’s heroine, it sneaks up on audiences in most surprising ways.