by Lisa Dib
I will always give an Australian film more of the benefit of the doubt than overseas movies, mainly because I so want to support the Australian film industry, and I do feel an odd sense of pride when there’s Aussie accents and local places up there on the big screen. I suppose it’s the only ideas of patriotism I have. So, when I went into The Dressmaker, I wanted it justify my faith and...it sort of did. Only sort of.
There’s some parts of the film, including in its production, that are wonderful. The costuming- something of the centrepiece of the entire film - by Emmy -nominated Marion Boyce (The Hollowmen, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries) and Margot Wilson (The Road, Lantana) is stunning and the clothes are rich and classically beautiful. The crew is jam-packed with women: it was directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, How To Make An American Quilt) who also co-wrote the screenplay, produced by Sue Maslin and Rosie Ham wrote the book that the film is based on. It also has an overwhelmingly female cast.
The film takes place in 1951, and Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (Kate Winslet) has come back to her old town, a teensy backwater in very outer Victoria. It is very classically “small town”, beset by gossip, rumours and old-fashioned values. It is, more than anything else, a revenge comedy; the romance between Tilly and Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) actually takes a back seat to the wider issues of the film: the accusations of murder towards Tilly that sent her from the town twenty-five years prior, the various affairs and in-fighting and Tilly’s strained relationship with her mother Molly (Judy Davis.)
As a revenge piece, the film makes sure to punish the baddies and let the heroes get away, or go out in glory, but is tonally all the over shop. It flicks between romantic comedy to tragic drama to Carry On levels of farce, without tact or transition. The characters feel ill-defined much of the time; Tilly rapidly deviates between sassy and bold to frightened and angry in the face of the townsfolk. It is never quite clear what she had hoped to achieve by coming back to the town, even though the end result she did end up with was pretty satisfying for her, and the audience.
This lack of character profile extends to the rest of the town, too; in a To Wong Foo-style makeover story, Tilly becomes the town’s official seamstress as the ladies that spat at her name and called her all manner of nasty things suddenly come running to her sewing machine, everything hunky dory now that they can benefit from her return. It is not clear just why Tilly - the film opening with the line, “I’m back, you bastards” - would offer to transform these women. Why does she care whether Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) snags an eligible man and gets herself a nice dress that accentuates her figure for once? Annoyingly, the film takes the She’s All That style of “transformative” wherein Gertrude takes off her glasses and brushes her hair and suddenly, bizarrely, the world stops. It’s a nice enough story on the outset, the idea of women gaining confidence from new, stylish clothes and the new sense of self it can bring, but the people Tilly transforms are almost all vile, rotten assholes, so I don’t particularly jump for joy when they look sexy in a frock.
Another tonal inference that bothered me - and this might seem minor, but it entirely tainted the Teddy character for me - was when Tilly tries to give Molly a bath. You see, Molly doesn’t want to, and starts shouting, “Murder! Murder!” at the top of her lungs (rather inconsiderate and dangerous, considering, but anyway); when no-one comes to her aid, she yells, “Rape! Rape!” and Teddy, at the bottom of the hill with a bunch of gawking extras, says: “Who’d be up there raping old Mad Molly?” which, as well as being an abhorrent thing to say, doesn’t exactly set him up as the Prince of the piece. Especially considering, when we finally do meet the True Villain (Shane Bourne and, boy, is his Evan Pettyman a garbage human being), one of the earlier and vilest indicators of his villainy is his falsely dosing of his wife’s “nerves” with sickening tonics and raping her as she lies passed out. As I said, a confused tone problem at the very least.
The work of Shakespeare is clunkily referenced several times in the film to allow for comparisons to be made to itself; it has a positively Shakespearean ending, and it wants you to know it, but by the end, the ‘villains’ of the piece have become so cartoonish that the audience rather opts out of minding what happens to them. The relationship between Tilly and Teddy is confusing too; from the beginning, it feels like a scene is missing here and there. The two are suddenly fighting for a love for each other that came from seemingly nowhere. Teddy is the well-cut hero figure who woos the fair maiden, and spouts ideas of “saving her” and “taking her away” and, of course, gets his gear off. His character is used for plot movement and a necessary love story, but not much else.
The film has all the benefits that the trailer showed off: stunning costumes, a properly revenge-Western-style town set, some excellent performances...but falls flat in all the bits in between. Although, I will say, Winsley bloody nailed that accent.