Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Writers: Jocelyn Moorhouse, P.J. Hogan
This film definitely wasn’t what I expected it to be. Based on the trailers and posters I was pretty much expecting a period soap opera set in Australia with a few light-hearted laughs thrown in. I was wholly unprepared for how dark this film turned out to be. The comedy is still there and it is for the most part light-hearted, making the dark twists and turns of the story all the more shocking. The film’s tone is all over the place which means you are never sure what to expect next. Sometimes the change can happen in a split second. A scene that starts off as being fun and innocent will all of a sudden end with a twisted or tragic turn before you even realise what is happening. In a lesser film this results in a confusing and frustrating experience for the viewer. In the hands of an artist however a film that shifts its tone in just the right ways can send its audience on a rollercoaster. For me I think The Dressmaker is somewhere in the middle.
In 1951 Australia Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns to her rural home of Dungatar after a 25-year exile. There she is met with hostility by most of the residents including her mother, christened by the residents of Dungatar as Mad Molly (Judy Davis). The resentment directed towards Tilly all stems from an incident during her childhood that resulted in a boy’s death, an incident of which Tilly has no memory. Amongst the few residents who welcome Tilly’s arrival with kindness are the handsome neighbour Teddy McSweeny (Liam Hemsworth) and the closet cross-dressing sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving). During her time away from this town Tilly has become an accomplished dressmaker and soon astonishes her neighbours with her provocative and stylish designs and the confident ways in which she flaunts them. The townspeople however have no idea what is in store for them as Tilly unleashes a plan to right the wrongs of the past.
There are two things I absolutely loved about this film: the acting and the costumes. Winslet is on fire as this cunning, talented and sexually confidant woman who defiantly asserts herself before this traditionalist town while struggling with the guilt of a crime that she may or may not have committed. I admittedly did find the age gap between her and Hemsworth to be a bit distracting (given that the film tries to pass them off as being around the same age) but found it easier to accept when I saw the chemistry between them. Besides given the number of times we’ve had to see women being paired with men several years their senior it’s refreshing to see it the other way round. Davis and Weaving also provide standout performances playing outlandishly eccentric characters and clearly loving every second of it. The costumes that Tilly designs for the townspeople are invariably stunning, employing a wide variety of styles, colours and designs. I don’t remember ever seeing two dresses that looked the same. I will be absolutely appalled if the Oscars overlook this film in this year’s ballot for Best Costume Design.
This is a film that tries to blend several genres into one. It is a story of love, revenge and creativity that borrows elements of black comedies and westerns. It certainly is an ambitious effort, especially for a director who hasn’t made a film in nearly two decades, and there are times when this blend works very well indeed. There were other instances however when I felt what was happening was too outrageous or too out of character. The blending of genres is a device often seen in the works of popular directors like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino whose works are similarly difficult to categorise. What I think sets those two directors apart though is that whatever type of film it is they decide to make they still each have a unique visual style that is distinctively theirs. I think the reason I struggled to go along with parts of The Dressmaker was because Moorhouse’s style of direction wasn’t pronounced enough to substantiate the type of universe where a story like this would take place.
With all of that said however I cannot deny being greatly entertained by this film. Although I struggled with it at certain intervals, the parts that I did go along with I found to be a lot of fun. The ensemble as a whole was consistently strong and the characters they played were both memorable and enjoyable. While I didn’t think Moorhouse’s direction was distinct enough to compliment the story she wanted to tell, I still think it was strong enough to deliver an entertaining film with plenty of laughs and drama. Since it is such an unusual film with a premise that is so difficult to define I can imagine that the audience’s opinion will be greatly divided. Those who have watched the trailer expecting a straightforward narrative or a particular type of film will likely be disappointed. However those who walk into this film with an open mind and a certain suspension of disbelief will I think be surprised as I was by how much they’ll enjoy this film.