Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Australia | 118 minutes | World Premiere
SAT | SEP 19 | 11:30 AM | Elgin/Winter Garden Theatres Visa Screening Room (Elgin)
Ahhhh the power of couture! It brings people together, heals mother/daughter rifts, and can even help us solve dark mysterious from our past! Or something like this informs the Kate Winslet/Judy Davis mother daughter story, The Dressmaker. I kind of wish the film had simply stayed at the level of absurdist comedy where it was actually highly effective, instead of getting all serious and including an entirely clichéd plot line about a “dark secret” from the past, a murder the film’s heroine, played by Winslet, thinks she might have committed as a child and for which she’s been cursed. But the film is inspired by a novel to which it needs to maintain a certain amount of fidelity I suppose, so there’s the rub. Though I haven’t read the novel and never will, it’s praised by others as a “gothic romance”. This, plus the filmmakers’ intentions of heightening the comic parts leads to a lot of tonal fluctuations director Moorehouse (Proof, How to Make an American Quilt) and the film’s impressive ensemble class handle quite well, but not perfectly.
Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker | credit: Courtesy of TIFF
The film tells the story of Tilly Dunnage, a woman who arrives in the Australian desert town of Dungatar to exact revenge on the townspeople who exiled her. But an incident haunts Dunnage: she’s suspected of murdering her former classmate, son of the town’s lead politician. Middle-aged, she’s fallen into the wretched category of “spinster,” but oh, has she got style!! Tilly has spent her intervening years as a couturier in the Houses of Dior and Channel and has honed her craft to the heights of elegance. First, she settles back home with her mother, played by Judy Davis as a cranky, insane old coot who refuses (or is incapable of) recognizing her own daughter. A lot of hilarity ensues as Tilly bathes her mother, the latter crying out that she’s being murdered and raped. The scenes between Winslet and Davis are a delight to watch.
Hugo Weaving shows up as the town’s chief of police, Sergeant Farrat, who has a not too subtle flair for dressing in women’s gowns. Weaving plays the character with brio and panache. The townspeople are essentially a bunch of repressed busy bodies greatly threatened by Tilly’s arrival. When Winslet’s character shows up at an Aussie Rules football game, complete with a series of dress changes for every quarter (or however Aussie Rules games are structured), each more revealing than the next, she sends the town’s wives and old maids into a tizzy. The players, so enthralled by this visual splendor of a woman, consistently fumble their plays. So follows Tilly’s unification of the townsfolk by introducing them to the splendors of Parisian fashion. She sets up shop in her old house, and begins to transform the women of Dungatar into stylish dames, soon acquiring a robust clientele.
The possibility of romance is introduced in the figure of a smitten Teddy McSwiney, who very quickly falls for Tilly. The film’s heroine is incapable of adequately returning the strapping stud’s overtures however until she’s come to terms with the dark secret that haunts her. I won’t give away the rest of the plot as much of the suspense hinges on these subsequent developments and surprises.
The Dressmaker is a competent exercise in style, mixing elements of intensified continuity directing with 1950’s flourishes such as looming foregrounds and depth compositions. Moorehouse is certainly in control of her subject matter. The period detail and costumes are exquisitely crafted and performances all first rate. Donald McAlpine, the film’s eighty year old director of photography crafts images that pop with all the sensuality and color of a lush, sensuous fifties pinup spread, brought to life against the parched desert landscape. In the end though, the film is overlong. Just when you think it’s over, there’s yet another climax that feels tacked on and it is this lack of restraint that undermines the final effect.