Fierce femme Kate Winslet stuns in this cinematic feast ‘The Dressmaker’ for the eyes.
While Hollywood wracks its brains trying to reinvent and squeeze another buck out of the male-driven superhero genre, Australia has quietly crafted its own unlikely gem of a female-driven blockbuster.
The Dressmaker is the story of a woman with a traumatic past who finds her own unique superpower and wreaks revenge on those evil folks who wronged her, many years ago.
Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) grew up in an ugly, obscure, insular little town in Outback Australia. She was mercilessly bullied and then “sent away” after mysterious circumstances involving the death of a schoolboy.
Even in her absence the townsfolk have reviled her and consigned her reputation to that of a banished witch. Meanwhile, the menfolk dominate this sexist Podunkville while the women become the worst stereotypes of conniving and useless 1950s doormats.
But all is set to change: Tilly returns, transformed from a freckle-faced schoolgirl to a high fashion glamazon. She has been living an exotic expatriate life in the world of European haute couture but now must solve the riddle of her past, and reconcile with her derelict and unruly mom, Molly (Judy Davis), who can possibly help her remember the events that led to her being cursed and cast out.
The Dressmaker is part fairytale, part Outback Gothic horror story…and a complete feast for the eyes. Since it doesn’t follow a naturalistic narrative model, I’m not going to bother poking too many holes in it; rather, let’s just go along for the quasi-feminist and fun ride.
Directed by Jocelyn Moorehouse, from a novel by radio dramatist Rosalie Ham, the plot melds quest and revenge together to play with and subvert anachronistic feminine stereotypes. Using her trusty Singer sewing machine, Tilly literally makes over her hometown’s downtrodden and prudish wallflowers with a design to converting them into acceptance. But the task is not easy, and even as the women are transformed into beauties, the ugliness at the core of their lives is exposed.
Some of the film’s “Australian Grotesque” elements might seem inexplicable to U.S. audiences, but fans of Aussie classics such as Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding will recognize and appreciate the medley of elements making up The Dressmaker. The film rips apart the cinematic conventions of mid-century “women’s pictures,” melodrama, and film noir; there’s even a nod to Spaghetti Westerns.
The effect is sometimes odd, perhaps a little uneven, as the plot switches gears between genres and allusions, comedy and sorrow, but it’s always compelling. Sound also stokes the atmospheric flames of the film, from the thud of vengefully aimed golf balls to the crackle of burning tobacco in Tilly’s cigarettes, to the final comeuppance on the townsfolk who have denigrated the dressmaker’s difference for years.
As for queer highlights, it’s suggested that Tilly enjoyed a liberating and somewhat mysterious life in Paris, working under a legendary female couturier while at Balenciaga (she carries her mentor’s photo with her); and Molly nastily cracks that her daughter is “a murderer and a lesbian!” While Tilly does demand her female customers strip in front of her so that she can take their measurements accurately and make the most of their ’50s curves she is, for all intents and purposes, straight, and is soon romanced by the hardscrabble and somewhat hapless hunk Teddy (Liam Hemsworth). Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to see an “older” (by Hollywood standards) woman enjoy a younger (and pretty!) male romantic interest.
Essentially, The Dressmaker is a story of bullying and the odd girl out’s revenge. It’s also about the power of the feminine. Even though she looks like a million bucks, Winslet’s role here is not merely decorative: she uses every inch of her jawdropping gorgeousness to realize Tilly’s mission. It’s also a treat to see the brilliant and unconventional actor Judy Davis throw any trace of Hollywood vanity to the harsh Outback winds and relish her rambunctious scenes with Winslet, literally tearing up the scenery as she goes.
It’s not often that we see women on screen together, exercising their full agency and taking the lion’s share of screen time. It’s also rare to see a cross-dressing character portrayed in a positive light: Hugo Weaving (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) gives a tender and endearing performance as the local police sergeant and fabric fetishist who assists Tilly in her quest for justice.
The Dressmaker is recommended for those who enjoy a female tour de force and the unexpected visual pleasure of cinema cut from different cloth than standard Hollywood issue.