Toronto Film Review: ‘The Dressmaker’

Kate Winslett in "The Dressmaker"

Jocelyn Moorhouse returns from a long absence from the director's chair with this appreciably deranged small-town revenge fable.

The tailoring is more consistent than the storytelling in “The Dressmaker,” an appreciably deranged tale of small-town intrigue that finds Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse returning quite literally with a vengeance after a nearly 20-year absence from the director’s chair. Starring Kate Winslet as a spirited 1950s haute-couturist who decides it’s time to return to her miserable hometown and give the place a little color (mostly red), this insistently quirky comedy-thriller-mystery-horror-revenge saga serves up an ugly human menagerie of ghouls and grotesques — every one of them contributing a different patch to a crazy quilt of murder, adultery, repression and madness. A work of shrill, campy excess as well as some pretty choice acting (especially from the always-welcome Judy Davis in a spry supporting role), Moorhouse’s adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel may lead audiences to expect a primmer, more well-behaved movie based on its title alone, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have them in stitches.

“I’m back, you bastards,” snarls Tilly Dunnage (Winslet), formerly known as Myrtle Dunnage, as she steps back into the dust-choked Australian hamlet of Dungatar, from which she was banished at the tender age of 10 for allegedly murdering a schoolboy named Stewart Pettyman. Even her own mother, Molly (Davis), a perpetually foul-tempered banshee known to the locals as Mad Molly, doesn’t believe in Tilly’s innocence as she growlingly welcomes her daughter back into their home, which sits on a hill overlooking a town that hasn’t gotten any kinder or less loathsome in the past 20-plus years. The town chemist (Barry Otto) is still a slut-shaming religious fanatic. The local schoolteacher (Kerry Fox) is still a bitter old hag who clings to her accusation that she saw Tilly smash Stewart’s head in. And the dead boy’s father, Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne), the councilor of Dungatar, retains a cruel, vise-like grip on the town as well as his tormented, long-suffering wife (Alison Whyte).

Not everyone is unhappy to see Tilly/Myrtle back in Dungatar. There is, for one, Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a handsome soccer star who takes an immediate interest in this worldly and sophisticated beauty. There’s also Farrat (Hugo Weaving), the good-hearted, secretly cross-dressing police sergeant who delights in the colors and fabrics Tilly has brought back with her from Paris, where she spent years learning the fine art of dressmaking. Also eager to sample the wares is Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook), a plain-Jane store worker who steps into one of Tilly’s radiant hand-stitched creations and enjoys a magical Cinderella moment at a local dance. Before long, the new dress shop is thriving and Tilly has more orders than she can handle, though it’s clear that she has more than just turning heads and profits on her mind. She wants to learn what really happened the day Stewart died, under traumatic circumstances that she’s blocked from memory, and hopefully clear her much-abused name.

That’s easier said than done, of course, given the moral black hole that Dungatar reveals itself to be, a seething and monstrous human cesspool capable of devouring even the most innocent and pure-hearted souls in its midst. That lesson is brought startlingly home in the film’s most jarring (and genuinely upsetting) death scene — one of many instances in which “The Dressmaker” proves remarkably ruthless about bumping off major characters as the story demands. While Moorhouse’s focus on a sharply drawn, predominantly female cast gives the film a certain kinship with “How to Make an American Quilt” and “A Thousand Acres,” its dark, acrid mood most directly recalls that of her superb 1991 debut, “Proof,” the first and only other Australian-set feature she’s directed — which makes “The Dressmaker” as much of a homecoming for her, in some ways, as it is for Tilly.

Given the sheer number of threads that 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. As the end approaches, the overall tenor of the piece bends increasingly toward the book’s gothic extremity, as Moorhouse pushes the mechanics of her bizarre story furiously toward camp: Long-buried mysteries are solved even as the present-day body count keeps rising, and an amateur town production of “Macbeth” comes out of nowhere — all the better to provide a suitable backdrop for Tilly’s own merciless revenge play.

Providing a crucial, stabilizing anchor here are the performances of Winslet and Davis, whose turn as a booze-swilling, dementia-addled and infernally sharp-tongued old matriarch is enough of a hoot to make one further wonder what she might have done with the role of Violet Weston in “August: Osage County,” onscreen or onstage. At one point, Tilly, Molly and Teddy attend a local showing of “Sunset Blvd.,” and the priceless sight of Molly talking back at the screen, cutting between Davis and Gloria Swanson, feels like a subliminal moment of exchange between one inimitable Hollywood grande dame and another. Winslet, a difficult actress to root against under any circumstances, has us in her palm from the moment she steps into frame, looking like an avenging dark angel bathed in ’50s noir shadows. Her presence lends much-needed ballast, and even a measure of moral weight, to the over-the-top retribution that awaits at film’s end.

While the production designer Roger Ford’s village interiors have a nicely lived-in, packed-to-the-rafters feel, there’s a sly sense of exaggeration and artifice to the exteriors and Australian locations used that heightens the underlying theatricality of the material. Given the title, it’s no surprise that the work of costume designers Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson positively sings onscreen, with Tilly’s dresses striking a bold, vibrant contrast with the drab colors and outdated fashions hitherto favored by the women of Dungatar.

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Dressmaker’

Reviewed at Creative Artists Agency, Aug. 27, 2015. (In Toronto Film Festival — Gala Presentations.) Running time: 118 MIN.

Production

(Australia) A Screen Australia, United Pictures Intl., Ingenious Senior Film Fund and Embankment Films presentation of a Film Art Media production, in association with White Hot Prods., Film Victoria, Soundfirm, Motion Picture Lighting. Produced by Sue Maslin. Executive producers, Gavin Poolman, Michael Shyjka, Tim Haslam, Hugo Grumbar, Ian Kirk, Roger Savage, Karl Engeler, Greg Sitch, Fred Gaines, P.J. Hogan, Daryl Dellora.

Crew

Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Screenplay, Moorhouse, P.J. Hogan, based on the novel “The Dressmaker” by Rosalie Ham. Camera (color), Donald M. McAlpine; editor, Jill Bilcock; music, David Hirschfelder; music supervisors, Bernard Galbally, Kate Dean; production designer, Roger Ford; art director, Lucinda Thomson; set decorator, Lisa Thompson; set designer, Michael Bell; costume designers, Marion Boyce, Margot Wilson; sound, Andrew Ramage; supervising sound editor, Glenn Newnham; sound designer, Chris Goodes; re-recording mixer, Chris Goodes; special effects supervisor, Peter Stubbs; visual effects supervisor, David Booth; visual effects producer, Prue Fletcher; visual effects, SlateVFX; stunt coordinator, Chris Anderson; line producer, Louisa Kors; assistant director, Phil Jones; second unit director, P.J. Hogan; casting, Christine King.

With

Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Julia Blake, Shane Bourne, Kerry Box, Rebecca Gibney, Caroline Goodall, Gyton Grantley, Tracy Harvey, Sacha Horler, Shane Jacobson, Genevieve Lemon, James MacKay, Hayley Magnus, Simon Maiden, Terry Norris, Barry Otto, Rory Potter, Sarah Snook, Alison Whyte, Darcey Wilson, Mark Leonard Winter, Amanda Woodhams.

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  1. mbecker says:

    brilliant. i find that native, and some non-native, aussie directors — a chosen few at the moment, can express the outrage and battle of the outsider in film equally or more sharply than the best of what the american independents can offer. without the ballast and bluster that i think some american greats are forced to incorporate into indy films due to the financial and marketing CBA may require. i’m not surprised by this film as the OZ experience from yet another outsider’s POV seems compact and more focused.

    perhaps it could be attributed to a nmore-singular sense of outsider-ness, or a more singular colonial-ness inherent in austalia’s past but with great film making, without artifice, and with strong directors i believe that australia is making some of the best genre films in this subculture. not only is the acting so well balanced, full and quirky, but the screenplays are so unrelentingly unflinching. keep up the good work, please!

  2. Michael says:

    The movie combines some characters from the book into one person and it doesn’t work (Buelah,the teacher isn’t a teacher in the book, its Miss Dim), and plays with the timeline to make the past relevant, some characters are missing from the book and a few scenes (the Trudi birth scene would have bee a great inclusion), if you have read the book the movie is good, Tilly, Molly Toby and Teddy are as you expect them to be.
    I loved the movie, but without the book you would be a bit lost.

  3. Bernard says:

    Don’t waste your money, this film is absolute rubbish from start to finish.

  4. Kim Nawell says:

    The best thing about this film is the pre release con job. A number of highly regarded actors combined with a quirky storyline and an Ozzie bush backdrop would have you believe your in for a treat. Wrong! Its garbage from go to woe. A lead male with a hipster beard and longish hair in the 50’s (yeah right),a town in the middle of a paddock with all the buildings squished together(yeah right),someone using the term ‘what ever'(yeah right), a football team huging and jumping around in the 50″s (yeah right). Its a hammed up over the top load of nonsense. How could you get involved with such smulch Judy? you must be suffering attention deprivation you poor baby.This film makes me think that a bunch of high school drama students were given millions of dollars for their anual production and here’s the result. This film will go down in history for one thing only and that being the first time ever a non Australian actor has nailed the accent.

    • Ness So says:

      She did nail the accent. I am Australian myself and found it without fault – perfectly natural. Liam Hemsworth was an interesting “love interest” for the main character…. we have always seen leading men partnered with women young enough (or almost) to be their daughters… in this film the reverse was the case. A boon for “equal rights” but I found this completely detracted from “believability”…..Ms Winslet is a gorgeous creature so good luck to her.

      • Stacey H says:

        Fantastic movie. The characters do indeed portray real life vindictive human nature. Clearly, people who make negative comments by nitpicking superficial paraphernalia cannot see the bigger picture. Which ironically is what the story is about. If the film had been 100% realistic it would not have half as enjoyable as it was (yeah right).

  5. Kelly B. says:

    The movie sounds like a delightful mess (to say it kindly), but I’d like to see this for Winslet and especially Davis who we don’t see much of in movies anymore. I sense a tragic end for her in this movie but I’d love to see that scene described above, of her and Winslet and Hemsworth watching ‘Sunset Boulevard’. She’s a master thespian of the highest order.

    • Annei says:

      It’s a film. It is not a documentary. It’s not a naturalistic film, but one that combines a variety of styles, including absurdism and symbolism. It doesn’t have to fit a realistic framework. Why don’t you educate yourself about film as art, instead of making ignorant, negative comments that insist that film needs to represent life as it is?

  6. Bill B. says:

    Love Judy Davis & rarely see her anymore. If others feel the same as this reviewer, maybe a supporting actress nomination for this?! She should have won for Husbands and Wives. She was brilliantly neurotic, wicked and funny.

  7. Ambuj Singh says:

    I am so bloody excited for this movie. Kate is certainly up for some awards next year either for this or steve jobs

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