The Dressmaker (2015)
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Plot: 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.
The Dressmaker, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, Unconditional Love) explores the story of a young woman named Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (Kate Winslet) who once lived in a village called Dungatar where she returns to visit her mother and subsequently cause an uprising. This Kate Winslet starring picture effortlessly combines comedy and drama in such a manner that you never know what to expect next, jumping mood from one scene to the next in a flawless and unending stream of entirely watchable and arguably unmissable scenes.
The film opens with a scenic landscape; a single white bus travelling through the endless brown fields surrounding it on either side. Upon arriving in the village of Dungatar, a single woman steps off the train holding only one suitcase and a “Singer” – her sewing machine. The first line of the movie is: “I’m back, you bastards”, followed by The Dressmaker title graphic. It’s such a comedic opening that sets the tone for what’s to come both in terms of the filmmaker’s style but also in terms of the darkly humorous story, and it comes less than 5 minutes into the movie! As we continue watching we see flashbacks of a childhood, presumably Tilly’s, which jump between images of girls skipping to that of a boy bleeding from his mouth, lying on the ground with his eyes open. By this point all we know is that something horrible happened in this quiet Australian village at some point in the past.
The movie goes on to explore the past of Tilly Dunnage, who returns to this almost deserted village to see her mother Molly (Judy Davis) after all these years and learn the truth – did Tilly really kill a young boy by the name of Stewart Pettyman? Along the way, she is reunited with people she remembers from her past, such as the Sergeant Farrat, a man who enjoys wearing women’s clothing and sewing; they soon become good friends. In addition to this, she meets Teddy, played by Liam Hemsworth, who claims not to believe in the curse that is thought to hang over her. An unfortunate happenstance surrounding Hemsworth’s character brings Tilly closer with her Mother in one of the more moving moments of the movie. The tangle of different characters is woven extremely well, yet The Dressmaker explores all these relationships in great detail, focusing on all of the characters and not just the central protagonists/antagonists which allows for a more powerful story, without the usual “who were they again?” moment of trying to think back to some obscure character that was only briefly mentioned right at the start, two hours earlier.
The character Winslet plays is one which cannot be easily defined. Tormented by what happened in her childhood, and unable to comprehend why she cannot remember the murder she apparently committed, Tilly still comes across as a strong woman who is confident and knows how to use her talents to get what she wants. It’s a paradox that is wonderfully worked by Winslet and written with a sincerity that is quite admirable. This is evidenced in the character’s first encounter with the villagers, where she turns up to the local rugby game dressed in an all red dress with matching shoes, moving in a manner which distracts the men while simultaneously proving to the helpless young woman, Gertrude Pratt, that a dress really can change your whole life. When she comes to design a dress for one of the local ladies (turning her into a stunning beauty able to gain the attention of one of the local men) Tilly is bombarded by the other women of the village to design a variety of different items of clothing: lingerie, day-wear, suits and even wedding gowns. Whilst designing the clothing, Tilly and her mother Molly learn to appreciate one another, and both learn the history of Tilly’s childhood together, due to Molly’s dementia causing her to forget not only what happened but also who her own daughter even is. Together they take on the resentful town, bonding and protecting one another. By the time Tilly learns the truth about what happened to Stewart Pettyman, many other secrets are revealed, either by accident or through force. All in all, Kate Winslet gifts the movie with the performance it needs, portraying a female character who is importantly using her womanhood for the good of herself. It’s a truly wonderful performance that could be considered one of her best in years.
One of the stand-outs of The Dressmaker is the music used, which varied in style while continuing to adopt a very dramatic tone; swapping between cheerful and upbeat melodies to slow and mournful tones, similar to a blues song. In addition to this, a Western stand-off style of music was used for scenes relating to Tilly’s rivalries with the local villagers of Dungatar. Both the music and scenes were woven together in a way which would seem almost impossible, but this contributed towards the way in which incredibly comical scenes were sharply followed by heart-breaking moments which made you question why you’d even laughed earlier.
All in all, The Dressmaker truly is a roller-coaster of emotions, avoiding all the cliché moments we have become so used to when thinking of a romantic-comedy-drama, and with an ending that the audience will never see coming. In my opinion, this was an ending that brought the movie down a fair bit as it seemed so utterly ridiculous and out of place with the serious and upsetting moments throughout the rest of the film, even despite its darkly humorous undertones, and therefore left the impression that it was somehow more of a light-hearted comedy.