MOVIE REVIEW: The Dressmaker

(Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures/Amazon Studios via


The quirk of the dark comedy genre comes from embracing absurdity and running with it.  Small wrinkles of character traits and situational story elements get twisted for wry laughs and wicked surprises.  One of Australia’s top films of 2015, “The Dressmaker” mixes high style in a setting of rubbish and romance with a cursed sense of revenge.  Not all of the fits and starts of many, many dalliances of the film end up working, but the presence of Oscar winner Kate Winslet demands attention.

Winslet portrays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage who storms back into Dungatar, her podunk New South Wales hometown after 25 years away.  She left as a exiled little girl and a disgraced suspect for the murder of a schoolmate in 1926.  She returns in 1951 by way of London and Paris as a walking and talking embodiment of va-va-voom.  Draped in vibrant designer fashions that accentuate her voluptuous curves and fiery persona, Tilly immediately turns heads and shivers timbers.

In her years away, her reclusive mother (Judy Davis, always a treat) has slid into dementia and been labeled “Mad Molly” as the town loon.  The instantaneous superficial jealousy developed by the other contentious women in town rekindles the blame everyone places on Tilly for the unresolved murder, an incident not fully remembered by Tilly herself.  Part of her return is to clear her name and learn the truth.  Two notable townsfolk that are not intimidated by her glamorous and dismissive aura are the cross-dressing lawman Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) and the dreamy local rugby hero Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth).  They help her navigate her goals and soften her heart.

Hijinks ensue in all directions when Tilly begins to make fabulous dresses for the less well-to-do women in town, spreading a buoyant confidence and sense of empowerment that jolts the slumbering order of Dungatar.  Winslet is, to no surprise, commanding in her beauty and screen presence to rock this dusty boat in every which way possible.  A whirlwind third act of macabre happenstance and zany twists gives “The Dressmaker” a mordant breeze that turns this affair topsy-turvy.  

When Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film is clicking with its sensationalized humor and wit, “The Dressmaker” can ably delight.  Winslet and Davis are an excellent dream team pairing of esteemed actresses.  The ensemble of surrounding citizens, including Weaving, Caroline Goodall and Sarah Snook, is equally colorful in personality.  Radiant cinematography from Donald McAlpine (“Moulin Rouge!” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”) soaks up the sunny setting and uncovers the seedy underbelly with equal gloss.  The star of the show will always be the dandy dresses designed by the Aussie team of Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce.

Where “The Dressmaker” loses too much of its fancy is the necessity of its weighty dramatic origins.  Despite it being vitally placed in Rosalie Ham’s source novel as the central mystery, the rehashing and resolution of the tragic flashback crime feels like a killjoy.  While it is well-adapted with layers and implication by Moorhouse and her fellow filmmaker husband P.J. Hogan (“Muriel’s Wedding,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) that core thread is a dragging chore.  The emotionality for those narrative elements is grossly mismatched with the rest of the amusement and greatly takes away devilish momentum.

LESSON #1: THE BOOSTS THAT COME FROM A GREAT OUTFIT-- Some will spew expressions that talk about silk purses, sow ears, lipstick, and pigs for trying to make the ugly beautiful, but there is an undeniable personal boost that occurs when someone feels they look their best.  Confidence, attraction, attraction, heart rates, and postures all soar.  If a dapper suit or stunning dress can do that, enjoy and revel in that opportunity.

LESSON #2: REVENGE IS A CURSE-- Many citizens label Tilly as cursed because of the negative attitude and dark cloud of assumed misdeeds that follow her around.  Her quest in response is one of revenge to prove the naysayers wrong and knock them down a peg or two.  Little good comes from that where the action of and thirst for revenge comprise the real curse.