For years there have been comments and criticisms that Australian films are too serious. Between award winners like Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Black Balloon and Animal Kingdom, Australian drama film outnumbers and overshadows our comedies time and time again. Fortunately for comedy lovers, The Dressmaker is a deviation from these serious flicks, and evokes the absurdity and farce of past Australian classics like Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert that have been absent from our domestic screens for too long.
Centering on Tilly Dunnage, formerly Myrtle, (Kate Winslet) as she returns to her isolated hometown of Dungatar in 1951, the film follows the lives of all the townspeople as Tilly tries to recall the murder she was accused of over a decade before, leading to her deportment to Melbourne as a child. Now a haute-couturist travelling from Milan to Paris, she comes home to care for her alcoholic and unstable mother Molly (Judy Davis), who, though not completely aware of her surroundings, still believes that Tilly killed schoolboy Stewart Pettyman. His father Evan (Shane Bourne) is now a cruel and controlling mayor-like figure in the town, while his wife Marigold (Alison Whyte) is a drugged up housewife suffering from OCD.
There’s more characters and story lines too, a sort of exploration of messed up country town life in 50s Australia. There’s the town chemist Percival (Barry Otto), a religious and creepy characters and his wife Irma, who at the will of her husband’s temper, struggles in her everyday life. There’s local teacher Prudence (Kerry Fox) is a who appears to be defending the wrong people and ugly duckling Gertrude (Sarah Snook) who is one of the first to undergo Tilly’s transformations. There’s the police sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) who relishes in the towns clothing makeover, and finally, there’s Teddy, the handsome charmer who becomes enamoured at Tilly’s worldliness.
Based on the popular 2000 novel by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker works because it’s heightened realism, melodrama, mystery and comedy are all at good quantities, not discounting the great fashion on display. From the opening moments of Tilly’s hilarious entry (“I’m back, you bastards”) to the towns fashion reinvention, the film is an enjoyable one, even with some of the touchy subjects that are exposed as it goes on. Of course the film sacrifices some of the character development in it’s transition to screen, but it still includes and features the best Australian actors in roles that suit them.
In terms of characters, Winslet is fantastic as Tilly, perfecting the Australian accent and bringing her own humour to the role. Though she is obviously much older than the other characters to consider them her contemporaries in the film, she works well with Hemsworth and Snook. Davis is phenomenal as Molly, and really is the life of the story, and without her the film wouldn’t be the same. Davis’ comic timing is superb and she certainly develops as the story progresses, at times even overshadows Winslet’s bellowing presence. Other characters are like caricatures and don’t have the same emotional depth that they are worthy of, but it all fits in within the narrative of Tilly’s comeback and her fight to get over her “curse”. Hemsworth and Snook are also both excellent, though Snook’s Gertrude needs some work in establishing why she does what she does. Nevertheless, the entire cast are as strong as the script allows and are pitch perfect within the over the top revenge story at the heart of the story.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse, who co-wrote the screenplay with husband P. J. Hogan, evokes much of the fun and farcical nature of Australia’s 1990’s comedies, even bringing a cross dressing Hugo Weaving to the screen once more. The film quality itself is magnificent, both embodying the nostalgia of the period, but keeping it modern at the same time. The film can be a structural mess sometimes, with emotional moments and stern warnings scattered throughout, and the ending feels rushed, albeit excellent. The clothing plays a huge part of the story and it’s refreshing to see fancy couture in the empty Australian outback. Costume designers Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce bring life to the story through the fashion in the film and take it to another level.
Indeed, The Dressmaker sticks to its crazy narrative and runs with it, that makes it one of the bravest Australian comedies in year. It’s contrived and irrational, but it’s also incredibly fun and irreverent in its approach. It may not rank highly among Winslet’s collection of films in the long run, but it’s a role where she is comfortable and fantastic. While the film may not go down in history as one of Australia’s best comedies, it’s one that doesn’t try to be something its not. And for that reason it deserves credit. And hopefully there will be more in the future.