If you had told me at the start of this year that an Australian film would be one of my favourite films of the year (and up there with all time), I’d have quoted another famous Australian film back to you- ‘You’re dreamin’. But in the case of The Dressmaker, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse (director and producer of many Australian films, notably Muriel’s Wedding), I am happy to say I was pleasantly surprised. This film has an outstanding cast, being a veritable who’s who of Australian cinema including Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Judy Davis, Shane Jacobson and Barry Otto just to name a few. The real stand out performance of the film though was Kate Winslet. If you had never seen her acting in anything else, you would think she was a born and raised Aussie. Normally when the British try and imitate an Australian accent, it goes horribly wrong (think Julia Gillard…). But the refinement and ease with which Kate Winslet speaks makes it much easier to immerse yourself into the world of the film. For those who don’t want to know a thing before seeing this film, cover your eyes, potential spoilers ahead.
The film is set in 1951 Australia in a small rural Victorian town. Our heroine arrives into town in the dead of night, carrying only her suitcases and a sewing machine. Dressed to the nines, she makes her way to a small shack overlooking the rest of the town. We don’t know it yet but Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage is back in town and ready to seek her revenge on those who have wronged her.
As the film opens, we see glimpses of small children playing, scenes from Tilly’s past. These are weaved throughout the film as the underlying motive for her return to town. She was sent away at a young age and made her way to Europe and ultimately Paris and became a famed seamstress in my famous fashion houses. One of my favourite characters, Sergeant Farrat (played brilliantly by our own Hugo Weaving) being the only policeman in the town, is expected to be manly and punishing but of course we find out that couldn’t be farther from the truth with his first exclamation of ‘Is that Dior?!’.
This film is really quite difficult to categorise, with elements of so many genres making their way into the story. We have the drama of Tilly’s return, her plotting revenge on the townspeople but then the comedy that is Judy Davis’ performance as Tilly’s mother, Molly. The film circulates through criminal intrigue and love interests and does it all seamlessly (excuse the pun).
Not wanting to give too much away, Tilly comes back to town with the goal of finding out the true reason she was exiled. As a child she was blamed for the death of a boy, the son of local businessman Evan Pettyman (played by Shane Bourne). Having very probably repressed any memories associated with such a volatile time in her life, Tilly wants to know what happened and comes to her mother for answers. Of course Molly Dunnage is deemed completely off her rocker and hasn’t taken care of herself in the preceding years since Tilly left town. Tilly takes it upon herself to right this, clearing out Molly’s shack and attempting to coax Molly back into civilisation. This is another of Judy Davis’ hilarious performances as you can imagine Molly is none too pleased to have someone come in and boss her around despite the fact she has no idea who Tilly is.
Tilly’s return to town makes a big impact as soon as everyone realises that she has come back. For different reasons, the older townspeople because they believe Tilly to be a murderess and the younger crowd, who see her way of dress as fabulous and to be admired. And then we have Liam Hemsworth’s character, Teddy McSwiney, who’s having none of it and just sees Tilly and nothing else. This was one part of the film that you sort of have to suspend belief for (not that many of the other shenanigans are more believable). As fine a performance as both Kate and Liam make, no one believes that they are of an age with each other…
Suffice to say, as the intrigue of the story continues, Tilly seemingly softens towards the town, especially the younger ladies all of whom want to emulate her style. Tilly goes so far as to help comely local girl, Gertrude (played by Sarah Snook) with a couture gown for a local dance. Upon entering the hall, it’s clear, she’s another woman.
As soon as word gets out that Tilly created Gertrude’s gown, the entire town is commissioning couture day and night wear from Tilly with her trusty Singer sewing machine up in the shack on the hill. The capers continue until of course, another seamstress is brought in to town to rival Tilly and regain the townspeople from her grasp.
This film truly has it all; the entire cinema was simultaneously laughing and jumping out of their seats. The true stars of this film though, the costumes. Designed and created by Marion Boyce (most recently credited with the fabulous costumes in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), they transcend the wearer from her drab and dreary surrounds and transform her into the woman (or man) no one can turn away from. You can’t help but be drawn to their glamour. The transformation of the individual characters (especially Gertrude for example) can really be attributed to their change in costume and that theme of clothes making the woman is definitely explored at length in this film.
I went into the cinema not knowing what to expect but emerged having had a wonderful time, both happy moments and sad. I wholeheartedly encourage anyone who is thinking of watching the film to go and see it, take some girls or guys or your mum, this film has appeal for everyone. I very rarely give any film 5 stars but to me, the combination of performances, costumes and storyline really impressed me. Check it out and let us know what you thought of The Dressmaker.