(Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse) (2015)
What Australian film with an eccentric and not entirely lovable female lead goes from grim merriment undercut by angst, to misery heightened by ruthless self-regard and then back again? If you said Muriel’s Wedding, you’d be right. If you said The Dressmaker you’d also be right. The Dressmaker takes us from a jolly football game and a dance, to adultery, tendon-cutting, drowning, stroke and arson. It begins with Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returning to the town from which she was ostracised, 25 years before, having been suspected of murdering a school-mate. This being a Australian film, the town is isolated, dry and nasty; the inhabitants a bunch of mad bastards. The return is not credible, given Tilly’s relationship with the town and the success which she has achieved during her absence, and there is a rather silly eisteddfod later in the film – but that is the tone of the film – an uneven veering between sunburned realism and cautionary fairy-tale. In the style of fairy-tales, the characters range from the mysterious princess (Winslet, with a superb Australian accent – not a hint of “a dingo’s got my boiby”), through the witch (Judy Davis, marvellous, playing with aplomb and nuance) to the cartoonish evil townswomen – Kerry Fox (wasted here) and Tracy Harvey. Liam Hemsworth is a prince with apparently irresistible urges to take his clothes off and to grin all the time. Shane Bourne plays the evil king Evan Pettyman in much the style of Bill Hunter as Bill Heslop (Muriel’s Wedding). Tilly is a couturier of renown now and she’d have to be, seeing the sophisticated wonders she whips up on her portable sewing machine, not even having curtains for a handy fabric source. The costume, hair and makeup departments’ makeovers, in particular those of Alison Whyte and Sarah Snook, are worthy of the legendary Edith Head. It’s refreshing to see a film that centres on a ‘woman’s’ occupation – sewing – rather than sport, although Tilly does manage to disrupt a football game and Sergeant Horatio Farrant (Hugo Weaving) does love a boa (shades of Priscilla?). Tilly thinks she’s cursed, then that she’s not, but she leaves the town at least four citizens and several buildings down, so it seems she still is. Like Muriel’s Wedding, The Dressmaker hints at those other small-town dramas, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and the Australian masterpiece, Love Serenade.