I wasn’t going to write about “The Dressmaker.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see the movie at a press screening before it was released in the U.S., but at the end of the day I’m not a movie person. They’re not something I seek out. In fact, I usually avoid seeing movies in theaters. I don’t like the way they mess with my emotions and have lingering effects on me for days.
I honestly can’t remember the last movie I saw outside of the comfort of my home. But you can’t beat free, and thanks to IVY I was given the opportunity to check out this movie before its limited U.S. release today. I also have a lot of trust in Kate Winslet’s decision-making and figured she wouldn’t disappoint.
I knew little about the movie before sitting down in the theater, but what I did know is that it featured fabulous costume design, was first screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and was supposed to switch from funny to deeply sad to outrageously strange in a blink. The film has been widely panned (see here and here and here)… which made me like it even more.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse described her film to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) as “a magical realism Spaghetti Western, kind of like Unforgiven with a sewing machine.”
That certainly played out. “The Dressmaker” began as many movies do: all over the place and quite difficult to follow. A dozen faces flashed by in quick succession with conversations taking place that made me feel like I was at a high school reunion at a school I didn’t attend in a town I had never heard of with people I had never met. But once the plot and characters came into focus, the movie quickly turned from strange and campy to authentic, relatable and somehow moving…despite its penchant throughout to throw you off with dark humor and plot twists.
Variety put this idea better than I could in its review of the film:
Given the sheer number of threads that [director Jocelyn] Moorhouse (who adapted the novel with her writer-director husband, P.J. Hogan) keeps in play, it’s surprising how well “The Dressmaker” coheres, albeit more along narrative lines than tonal ones. From scene to unpredictable scene, the movie can be a bewildering mess, but also a lively and propulsive one — daring you to keep up as it morphs from smirky, backbiting comedy to earnest, look-at-the-stars wonderment to frightening Grand Guignol intensity, while David Hirschfelder’s busy score works overtime to keep up with the picture’s rapidly shifting moods.
Now, that’s not to suggest that “The Dressmaker” was a superbly-crafted adaptation of the book from which it got its name (and which I haven’t read). It tracks the story in the same way as many other films based on books: with frequent missing details and head-scratching moments. If anything, the movie adaptation made me want to read Rosalie Ham’s novel even more, because I imagine the book weaves these storylines together much more smoothly than the movie could in just under two hours.
The themes that ran throughout might have been one of the most intriguing aspects of the film that kept my interest. Like the theme of finding redemption while seeking revenge, and how wardrobe contributes to a feeling of empowerment which can permanently alter how you view yourself and those around you. These combined result in an environment where everybody ends up acting in their own self-interest. And nobody can win in that scenario.
Here’s what I loved about “The Dressmaker,” besides the stunning costume design (which I think was made more glamorous by the barren setting of the fictional Dungatar, Australia): It makes the audience think about how they would handle ethically- or morally-ambiguous situations. Such as the lengths you would go to clear your name. To avenge a wrong that’s been done to you. To right a wrong you’ve done to someone else. How to handle newfound power and popularity. While “The Dressmaker” elected the dramatic option in just about every situation, a couple of moments left me wanting to cheer at the screen for someone who had exacted revenge one chilling way or another, because they could get away with it in a movie but definitely not in real life.
The other piece of brilliance in the movie was Judy Davis’s portrayal of “Mad” Molly Dunnage, mother of the protagonist, Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, played by Kate Winslet. She is a source of hurt and frustration for Tilly, who has returned to her hometown of Dungatar to care for her mother and seek redemption and revenge. “Mad Molly,” as she is referred to throughout the film, makes Tilly’s life hell as she pretends to not remember her daughter, hit on her love interest, Teddy, (portrayed by the delicious Liam Hemsworth), and cause problems all around town. Mad Molly’s doesn’t-give-a-shit attitude and full embracing of her reputation with those in Dungatar allows her to be unrestricted, intimidating and downright funny. Davis does a thoroughly convincing job in her portrayal of her character.
Here’s the bottom line: If you are looking for a campy, melodramatic, humorous, deeply sad, thought-provoking indie film laced with dark humor and “what the F” moments throughout, then this is the movie for you. It is a total departure from reality with enough threads of reality to make it relatable. Definitely watch it with a drink and a friend. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.