The Dressmaker Review
The Dressmaker (2015) Film Review, a movie directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, and starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, James Mackay, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Shane Bourne, Alison Whyte, Rory Potter, Darcey Wilson, Shane Jacobson, Rebecca Gibney, Gyton Grantley, Barry Otto, Julia Blake, and Sacha Horler.
The Dressmaker opened heavy, with a promise (perhaps threat) of Hell following a pale, Iron Horse rider. The meeting place of choice was a 1950s Australian frontier town, chosen by an exile named Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (Kate Winslet). Myrtle had a hole in her head, a heat in her heart, and a better, worldly understanding of how haute couture was the perfect weapon of choice.
What followed was one part Spaghetti Western, one part Film Noir, one part Ugly Duckling gets the Goods, one part suspense-murder mystery, and one part fish-out-of-water farce. The level of commitment to each of these elements kept them from blending together. In fact, they often seemed at odds with each other, if not incompatible. Some may find the juxtaposing of whimsical comedy with the heaviest, darkest of subject matters jarring – if not offensive.
Here’s why the combination worked for me.
My favorite line, from the old Ally McBeal series, came from one character asking another why she treated her problems like they were so much bigger than everyone else’s. The reply: “Because they’re mine.”
At one point or another, we’ve all had moments that (at the time) seemed worthy of Homeric poetry, and a John Williams score. It didn’t matter how mundane, petty, irrelevant, or (more to the point at hand) falsely equivalent these moments actually were – all that mattered was how we felt about them, while doing/ experiencing them. The Dressmaker makes its disparate elements work if you consider your own likely exaggerated perspective, concerning your own personal highs, lows, and sideways.
Yes, sideways. Our lives aren’t made up of entirely linear moments, and absurd asides abound, regardless of how heavy or dark things turn; so I’d expect the same of a fictional character – once I manage to get out of my viewing seat, and into his/ her head.
With that in mind, I felt free to enjoy each contributor to the World according to Tilly. At the top of the list was Judy Davis, as her very estranged mother, Molly. Many of the townsfolk had sub-plot elements that either ran parallel, or contributed to Tilly’s quest; but Molly’s would be the only one to keep pace. Truth be told, the Molly character stole every scene she was in, and did more to propel the story to its (own) logical conclusion than even its main protagonist. Fortunately, the interactions of Molly & Tilly – owed, in part, to the chemistry between Winslet & Davis – amounted to more of a relay, than individual foot race. Watching Tilly get through to Molly was the reward to a delightfully frustrating initial dynamic. Watching Molly get through to Tilly, however, was the reward to the story, itself. More on what I believed that reward to be, later – I haven’t even gotten to Hugo Weaving’s Sergeant Farrat, yet.
There may be no way around it, so I’m just going to blurt it out. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. If taking the time to support a homegrown film wasn’t enough, Hugo Weaving’s role may have been a warm salute to the homegrown film that put him on the map, in the first place (no, not The Matrix). The consistent delight, both brought to & by his character, will likely be one of the farcical elements some viewers will find pace breaking. To be fair, the character’s range – from grim enabler of antagonists, to giddy enabler of protagonists – could be compared to the meanest of feral cats being greeted with just the right toy; but I found his particularly conflicted role to be very useful to Tilly. I’ll get to why being of more use to Tilly, than the film’s story structure, was so important, later.
What would the fish-out-of-water element be, without a colorful assortment of little fish, in a little pond, for World traveler Tilly to loom large against. Some of the usefulness, to the film’s scramble of elements, was in keeping these various roles & characterizations from being set in stone too early. Drawing permanent battle lines from the get go would have been too simplistic, and I believe that giving us a reason to bring our better Angels to the film’s conflicts made for a more effective outcome. Hope overlaid upon darkness makes for something satisfying; but more on that later, as well (I’m getting to it – still working the cast, here).
The romantic element came in two forms. The lesser of these involved Tilly’s in, with (most of) her former defamers, but the principal distraction came from townie standout, Teddy (Liam Hemsworth). When Tilly wasn’t getting her mother back into fighting shape, or teaching Teddy’s brother, Barney (Gyton Grantley), the fine art of sniper golf, she was being taken off her vengeance game by Teddy.
Personally, the worst I can say about Liam Hemsworth was that he made for a memorable plot motivator, and little else. Realistically, his character was the token bright spot – meant to make the traumatic trip back worthwhile – which then pushes the protagonist into the severe-but-badly-needed action, that said protagonist had been either too intimidated, complacent, or righteous to go through with. Well, at least he made for a good looking motivational plot device.
I’m not being dismissive when I say that – I’m just pointing out that, given the exaggerated singular protagonist’s perspective angle, it stands to reason that Teddy would be an idealized figure to Tilly; every bit the archetype for setting on her right shoulder, as her mother was for her left.
It was only fitting, then, that the misanthropic matriarch would follow suite – becoming the final junction spike to connect those odd film elements to the locomotive engine of the whole affair: schadenfreude.
The way I see it, The Dressmaker couldn’t just be about revenge, nor could it be about getting over-and-on. It had to be both; and that was only made possible by properly investing in the world seen through Tilly’s eyes. We needed the farce, the romance, the torments & rewards, all to appreciate the course of her quest; but most of all, we needed to share her hope for a just resolution to that quest. Why? So we could share in her satisfaction, once that justice was denied.
It’s not enough to know why someone deserves comeuppance – it helps to feel the need to apply it. The lighter elements were meant to help us feel a sense of loss, when the darker elements seemed to prevail. Revenge makes for good spectacle; but schadenfreude makes for good experience (just not in the moralistic sense). As much as I relished the film’s opening ode to Western showdown cinema – complete with rival Singer Slinger for hire – I felt better about it getting there, for having taken the (sometimes wildly varying) course that it did.
Schadenfreude is also fun to say. Let’s bring it back (‘Wizard’ can wait). Say it with me, now: “schadenfreude….”
Anyone with still fresh memories of Game of Thrones’ 6th season, might catch the significance to Barney’s repeated line, regarding Tilly; but for the unfamiliar, it could make for a decent daybreak moment – before the actual reveal to the murder mystery element. The fact that the murder mystery didn’t serve as the end-all-be-all for the film, however, might also throw off some viewers. Still, I maintain that this was a story about Tilly making sense to herself, more so than her story being made to viewer standards of storytelling.
It would be easy to pin The Dressmaker as a revenge flick with identity issues (as I’m sure many will); but to me, it was the best kind of revenge flick – the one that stops to feed our broader sensibilities, if only to prime those senses for a much sweeter taste of the given moment, when it comes.
Anyone tells me they saw a series of mismatched, patch-worked fabric, forced onto a frame, I’ll tell them they were looking at it wrong. When they demand to know why my point of view’s any better than theirs…
“Because it’s mine.”
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