Film review: THE DRESSMAKER, from ‘Built For Speed’

Although directed by Jocelyn Moorehouse, The Dressmaker has the stamp of its writer and producer P.J. Hogan all over it. Like Hogan’s classic Muriel’s Wedding, The Dressmaker is a quirky Australian comedy that pits a sophisticated outsider against prejudiced Aussie bogans, celebrates femininity and glamorous reinvention while satirising both, has a wedding scene but also makes frequent turns into darker territory.

The film boasts a terrific cast featuring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Shane Bourne, Rebecca Gibney, Sarah Snook and many more.  Winslet plays Myrtle Dunnage or Tilly a mysterious, glamorous and vengeful dressmaker who in 1951 returns to her former country Victorian home of Dungatar from Paris announcing her arrival in with the words ‘I’m back you bastards’. The reason for her bitterness becomes apparent as does her weird relationship with her eccentric mother (Judy Davis) and her link to a childhood tragedy that has scarred the town and Tilly’s reputation for 25 years.

The first half if the film is filled with Hogan’s instantly identifiable brand of humour as Tilly starts to win over the town’s dowdy women by dressing them in the sort of extravagant gowns that Hollywood glamour queens like Rita Hayworth would wear.  Seemingly accepted, Tilly begins to warm to the locals and even begins to find love with footy hero Teddy (Liam Hemsworth). Deep-seated resentments toward Tilly fuelled by dark secrets, however, see the town’s power brokers turn on her with destructive results.

Stuffed full of broad comedy and garish, manic performances, The Dressmaker won’t be to all tastes. Few, however, could be disappointed by Kate Winslet. She is terrific as Tilly, managing to make her both a stunning, exotic femme fatale and a genuinely funny comic figure.  Winslet also pulls off one of the most convincing Australian accents we’ve heard from a non-Australian actor.  The revered Judy Davis is also a riot as Tilly’s mother, Molly; drunken and dishevelled and occasionally recalling Prisoner’s Lizzy Birdsworth, Davis’ Molly also has a sly wit and razor-tongued cynicism with which she effortlessly cuts down the town bullies.   While some of the supporting cast (such as Barry Otto) are a little too quirky and over the top, others are surprisingly good with Shane Bourne impressively sleazy as Tilly’s local nemesis, Evan Pettyman and Sarah Snook unfailingly charming as the introverted Gertrude who emerges from her shell under Tilly’s tutelage. Hugo Weaving also pops up in the unusual but amusing role of a cross-dressing local cop.

In its latter stages the film makes a slightly awkward transition from freewheeling comedy to more serious drama but this allows Moorehouse to make some pertinent observations about aspects of Australia such as the destructive hypocrisy of white male-dominated Australian culture and small town politics.

The Dressmaker is also terrific too look at with Moorehouse and veteran cinematographer Don McAlpine crafting impressive vistas of country Victoria’s open spaces, some of which recall the framing in Hollywood westerns.

Some viewers may find this film a little too frenzied and its comedy too broad but for many this sprightly, idiosyncratic film will be a treat as it manages to be at once a feel good movie and a disturbing critique of Australian values.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Drama/ comedy.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Jocelyn Moorehouse.

Release date:  25th October 2015.

Running time: 118 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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