Title: The Dressmaker
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Major Players: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth
Out Of Five: 3
Why, I wonder, did The Dressmaker not get a slot at this year’s London Film Festival? There’s a woman behind the original book as well as the film itself, and a strong female central character. A surprising omission, given the festival’s self-confessed theme, but we’ve not had to wait too long to see it, even if it does risk being overshadowed by the arrival of the final part of The Hunger Games.
Not that I dislike the YA saga but The Dressmaker does make a neat contrast to all those energetic teenagers. There’s no post-dystopian setting here, but 1950s Australia, in the one horse Outback town of Dungatar. Off a train steps the immaculately dressed Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet), returning to her home after a 20 year absence. Now a highly successful dressmaker, she’s arrived to sort out her relationship with her eccentric mother, Molly (Judy Davis) and put right the wrongs in her past. That sewing machine will come in handy …..
I’ll come back to the sewing machine later. The first hour of the film works a treat. True, it won’t necessarily have you in stitches, but it is deliciously and darkly funny, its spaghetti western reference working especially well. Tilly clearly has revenge on her mind and announces her intention loud and clear by hitting golf balls at the homes of her enemies so that they clatter noisily down their roofs and do all kinds of damage. And there’s plenty of people in her sights.
Her appearance sets her apart from everybody, male or female, in the drab, parched little town. She dresses in bright colours, her clothes are immaculate and so is her make-up and hair. Not only that, but her dresses emphasise her figure and femininity, so she turns male heads, especially at the local footie derby with neighbouring Yernip. And it means Dungator wins! Not everybody is pleased to see her back, though, but there’s a definite welcome from local police officer Farrat (Hugo Weaving) who, it turns out, has a fascination with women’s clothes and finery.
Tilly’s stunning creations soon capture the attention of the local women, who come flocking to her door, so that she can transform them into domestic goddesses, if only in appearance. So we’re set up for a revenge black comedy, even if we do wonder how she’s going to do it. Those wonderful frocks will make the women more assertive, but how does that turn into revenge?
And it’s at this point that the film suddenly forgets it’s a revenge comedy and gets bogged down in a romance between Tilly and local footie hero Teddy (Liam Hemsworth in one of two films this week:this is the one with a beard.). It’s almost as if, like Winslet, the whole production has been distracted by his looks and pecs. The result is rather like the cakes with medicinal properties from Tilly’s kitchen: it sinks in the middle and turns stodgy. Then, equally suddenly, the film wakes up to the fact that it needs to tie things up so it’s back to the revenge story and it’s all tied up in just twenty minutes, with Tilly taking the ultimate revenge on Dungatar. It all involves another face-off with Yernip, this time a farcical drama competition. And it’s all done in a breathless rush.
Winslet gives one of her better performances here, looking fabulous in those dresses and genuinely convincing as somebody who’s been a misfit all her life. But she has to be on her toes for her scenes with Judy Davis, who is in turns touching, horrible and outrageously funny as her mother, an eccentric with a decidedly unreliable memory. The other characters aren’t so well rounded, with Hemsworth simply providing the love interest and the others playing it almost purely for laughs, with varying degrees of success.
And the sewing machine? When Tilly arrives in town, she’s holding a carry case for a hand operated Singer. I have an identical one. Yet in a later scene, we see her clearly using a foot operated machine, one with a treddle. It has no handle on the right hand side and she is using both hands to guide the fabric as she sews. Treddle machines were pieces of furniture in their own right and there was no way they were portable.
It’s an inconsistency that sums up the entire film. While it gets off to a cracking start, the narrative goes walkabout and the audience is left high and dry. And when it does wake up, it’s a mad scramble to tie up all the loose ends. All of which means that The Dressmaker just doesn’t hold together and is a wasted opportunity.
The Dressmaker is released in cinemas on Friday, 20 November and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 19 November.