Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker – adapted from the novel by Rosalie Ham – is a great reminder to never judge a work of art by its cover. The poster features Kate Winslet in period garb and the title in fancy font and we just roll our eyes and think how we’ve seen this many times.
How wrong we are.
Before the title screen appears, a bus pulls into a small Australian town in the middle of the night. Out comes Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (Winslet). She’s hidden under a large hat and elegant dress that blends her into the night. She takes out a cigarette, lights it and takes a drag and says, “I’m back, you bastards,” with a clear agenda in mind. All of a sudden, we are in a different film than expected.
We learn that long ago, Tilly was banished from the town for murdering a schoolmate. She has no recollection of the event but nobody has forgotten. She moves in with her mother, Mad Molly Dunnage (Judy Davis), who is as much of a pariah as her daughter. The two of them don’t always get along; Molly even acts like Tilly is a complete stranger intruding on her home.
Tilly’s presence puts the entire town in a state of unease and gives the gossips fodder for days. She doesn’t care. Tilly refuses to live life as an outcast and doesn’t care if anyone is mad that she is back or not. Despite everyone not liking Tilly, they aren’t afraid to go to her for one of her designer gowns, which can transform someone into a completely different looking person. After her banishment, Tilly spent time in Paris learning dressmaking from some of the biggest names in the industry. All of a sudden, her sewing machine becomes her weapon.
Not everyone in town hates Tilly, though. The closest person to a friend is the cross-dressing Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who is friendly with Tilly but mostly so he can touch all of her fabric. Then there’s Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), who persistently asks Tilly out on dates even after her warnings of her being cursed.
The Dressmaker is a truly bizarre and surprising experience. There is an array of supporting characters, which give the film quirk to spare. It’s an Oscar-bait period piece that dares to loosen its corset and have a little fun and let the venom flow through its veins. The histrionics are a hoot when they could be overdone and the melodrama is of the highest order without sounding like nails down a chalkboard. It makes it all that more disappointing when The Dressmaker starts to take itself seriously.
The always-great Winslet is commanding as ever here and has a good rapport with Davis. There mother-daughter banter is entertaining enough to sustain the film, making everything else a bonus. The romantic pairing of Winslet and Hemsworth is probably the most distracting aspect of the film because we are supposed to believe them as old schoolmates, despite having a 15-year age difference. Their chemistry isn’t quite there.
If you have reservations about seeing The Dressmaker because you simply couldn’t stand to sit through another stuffy costume drama, leave those worries at the door. This is an entertaining black comedy dressed up as Jane Austen.