The Dressmaker

(2015) *** Unrated
118 min. Broad Green Pictures. Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse. Cast: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Judy Davis.

/content/films/4974/1.jpg The Dressmaker begins with a homecoming. Kate Winslet’s titular couturier returns by dead of night, in 1951, to her small country town of Dungatar, Australia. Dolled up like 1940s movie starVeronica Lake, she sets down her weapon of choice, a Singer sewing machine. “I’m back, you bastards,” she intones, for her own satisfaction. And with that, we’re primed for a revenge tale.

But this isn’t “Kill Bill, Part 3," and we can be thankful for that. In adapting Rosalie Ham’s debut novel, screenwriters P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) and Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof) aren’t after the usual bloody release but rather what Moorhouse has described as a more “feminine” form of revenge. The Dressmaker is about as tender as the revenge genre gets, though the fundamental thing applies: vengeance is a compulsion, not a recipe for happiness.

Winslet plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who reinstalls herself in the remote town’s remotest home, that of her half-crazed, shut-in mother Molly (Judy Davis). Tilly tosses clutter, cleans the house, and opens for business as a dressmaker, but not before a bit of creative advertising distractingly wearing her wares at a rugby match. There, she drums up business and catches the eye of local hunk Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth). What follows is part slow-burn mother-daughter drama, part slow-burn suspense thriller, and part slow-burn romance, with a few twists for good measure as the town begins to come apart at the seams.

That the incongruous parts function as well as they do is down mostly to the skill of Moorhouse and her actors. Winslet and Davis expertly portray Tilly and Molly’s renegotiation for each other’s familial affection, the ensemble of eccentrics (including Hugo Weaving as a deeply sensual transvestite police sergeant, Presdestination’s Sarah Snook as a mousy shop clerk, and Barry Otto as a hunchbacked fundamentalist pharmacist) power the film’s uniquely Australian comic tone, and Hemsworth ups his game in the company of Winslet and Davis.

The Dressmaker also prods us to consider the value of the “look good, feel good” ethic. Results are results, and there’s no harm in a bit of romantic idealism (represented by repeated spins of the South Pacific soundtrack album). But there’s also a willful delusion in how the townspeople think Tilly’s fashionable adjustments are making them “less like themselves and more like they want to be” (as if to prove the point, Snook’s Gertrude happily reports, “Everyone calls me Trudy now”). Cosmetic makeovers to the dusty town and Molly’s house can serve as an allegory for our existential struggle against entropic rot, and a third-act dramatic costume competition underlines the role-playing aspect of dress-up (“Plays are such fun—they bring out the best and worst in people”).

A thirst for vengeance keeps Tilly trapped within Dungatar’s past-and-present maelstrom of gossip, lies, and hate—and vice versa. Something’s gotta give, and waiting to find out what and how makes The Dressmaker compelling viewing.

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