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Friday, 30 October 2015

The Dressmaker

(M) ★★★½

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse.

Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Shane Bourne, Alison Whyte, Rebecca Gibney, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley.

After the Titanic, Rose vowed to stay as far from water as possible.

YES, the film looks amazing and the costumes are stunning and there are some great performances here, but the biggest acclaim must go to the casting director.

Christine King, a Primetime Emmy winner, and director Jocelyn Moorhouse have pulled together the best ensemble cast an Aussie film has seen in decades.

It’s not just about the big names though – the talent here helps overcome the shortcomings of this adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel, keeping the story’s eccentricities predominantly in check.

Winslet is the big coup obviously and with a flawless Aussie accent on show, she dominates and elevates this quirky drama at all the right moments. She plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who was sent away from her home town of Dungatar in rural Australia as a 10-year-old following the death of a classmate.

Having spent many years as a top fashion designer in London, Paris and Milan, Tilly returns to care for her mother “Mad” Molly Dunnage (Davis).

Tilly is also keen to unravel what really happened on the day her classmate died – is she really the murderer that everyone says she is?


There is much to like about The Dressmaker, but the biggest reason is the cast. Dungatar looks like an Aussie version of a spaghetti western bordertown, and Winslet rolls into it like a chiffon tornado – Moorhouse likened Tilly to "Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven with a sewing machine”.

Winslet makes Tilly feel like a real person rather than the inconsistent mess of contradictions she could have become. Tilly is haunted and weakened by her past but is headstrong and determined. She’s desperate to gain forgiveness from the people of Dungatar but usually doesn’t care what people think, and she has a classy European coating around a can-do country attitude.

Winslet anchors the film and is the wonderful dynamic centre the rest of the movie’s quirks and melodramas can revolve around. And even though it’s been said already, it bears repeating –her Australian accent, a notoriously hard accent to nail, is spot on.

Davis is also great in a tricky role. Mad Molly could have tipped over into “crazy person caricature” but Davis keeps it under control. Hemsworth is also good at making a poorly defined love interest likeable, while the rest of the cast boasts increasing levels of Aussie wackiness ranging from Snook’s ugly duckling to Weaving’s cross-dressing copper.

As a result The Dressmaker walks a knife edge between the sensible turns of Winslet, Davis and Hemsworth, who provide the film’s emotional heart, and the wacky Dungatar townsfolk and the odder plot points.

Occasionally it tips too far into absurdity – Barry Otto as the town doctor is a stand-out oddity that doesn’t work, while an eisteddfod-style showdown with a rival town falls flat – but the cast helps keep the ship steady. Weaving’s cross-dressing copper provides an interesting subplot (despite a haphazard denouement) while seeing haute couture come to the country is pretty funny.

Unfortunately the resolution of the story’s central mystery is a misfire. What might have worked on the pages of Ham’s novel is flat-out strange on film, and it’s only the connections between Winslet, Davis and Hemsworth’s characters and the themes springing from that triangle which keep the final act on the rails.

In spite of its flaws, The Dressmaker is enjoyable and masterfully crafted. The costumes are wonderful, the town of Dungatar is a minor marvel of set construction, and the whole thing is lensed beautifully by Donald McAlpine and scored magnificently by David Hirschfelder.

Although often saved by its cast, The Dressmaker is still a quality Australian production that deserves a big audience and every AACTA Award it might win in December.

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