One dark, quiet night, an infrequently visiting bus stops into the small, dusty town of Dungatar, Australia. A set of beautiful pumps emerges from the vehicle, and the enchanting Kate Winslet sets down her stylish suitcase, and lights her cigarette. As the camera pans to a close-up of her face, Winslet characteristically blows out the cigarette smoke and mutters, “I’m back, you bastards.”
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse clearly sets the tone of The Dressmaker as that of a feminist Western, bending genres to fit the mix between a period drama and a campy comedy. Unfortunately, neither she nor the screenwriter can salvage the poor source material of the novel, written by Rosalie Ham, to create a cohesive cinema experience. It is a tribute to Moorhouse that she can build a comprehensive narrative altogether, but The Dressmaker is ultimately bogged down by its awkward change of tone and pace.
The Dressmaker has a relatively straightforward premise. Renowned dressmaker Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns to her hometown of Dungatar, Australia after the town sent her off after she allegedly murdered a young bully. She reconnects with her estranged, hysterical and often drunk mother, Mad Molly (played by a fantastic Judy Davis). Upon arriving, she soon begins a romance with local hunk NAME (Liam Hemsworth) and begins to makeover the female inhabitants with her fabulous dressmaking skills.
This premise seems like the makings of an adequate period romantic comedy, but certain plot twists and dramatic changes in the second act include too many elements and devices that do not always work. Moorhouse abruptly changes from the campiness of Hugo Weaving’s crossdressing police officer to a quick, unnecessary portrayal of spousal rape. Weirdly enough, too many characters die without any reason or rhyme, and do not present viewers with the poignant gravitas needed to be affected or moved in any way. After the main plot is apparently concluded, the third act is where Moorhouse’s film takes the most melodramatic, ludicrous twist of all. Although I won’t spoil it, some viewers may think it is the perfect ending, but I was left with a feeling of confusion and unredeemable silliness.
Although the out-of-place tone changes and kooky plot are enough to squander the film’s potential, the biggest glaring problem was Moorhouse’s portrayal of feminism. The Dressmaker is obviously a female-centered and driven film; most of the cast is female and offers many women power moments. However, certain scenes undermine this theme. The portrayal of spousal rape is so unnecessary and insulting; the audience already understands that Beaumont is a horrible man who treats his wife terribly. Tilly is aggressively assaulted by her childhood bully in flashbacks, which further adds to growing amount of violence committed against women in the film. In another scene, Trudy runs to the safety of Tilly’s dressmaking to quickly change from a disgusting wedding dress to a sultry one, making sure that her fiancée doesn’t see her without looking fabulous. In addition, most of the town’s ostracism and criticism of Tilly and Mad Molly derives from the women, who are stuck in some stereotypical, backwards 50s housewife representation. The only part that slightly reclaims the feminist theme is the portrayal Hemsworth’s Teddy as a bland, but steamy romance novel hunk whose only purpose is to adore Tilly and make her feel loved. Since this character in film is usually filled by women, it is a welcome surprise when the roles are reversed.
This is not to say that certain parts and scenes do not work wonderfully well; and, of course, the costumes are magnificent. Although Winslet and Hemsworth’s romance is slightly trite, they both have enough chemistry and attractiveness to sufficiently convey heat and passion between the characters. The mother-daughter dynamic also progresses wonderfully from distant, angry resentment to sensitive compassion and understanding. In perhaps the film’s most touching scene, Mad Molly opens up to her daughter about the traumatic sadness and depression after Tilly was taken away from her, and how all these years of loneliness affected her.
As to be expected, Winslet is as fantastic as she always is, and apparently gets sexier and more beautiful with age. She inhabits the role of Tilly Dunnage with fire, intensity and drive, deftly filling her skin as if she was made to. Winslet consistently emits a lustful sensuality reminiscent of Cate Blanchett in Carol, but also brings an emotional clarity and fragility that connects with the audience in ways that Moorhouse cannot achieve. It’s tragic that Winslet was not able to save the movie.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Although Davis and Winslet give fantastic performances and is occasionally moving, it isn’t enough to salvage Moorhouse’s uneven genre-jumping comedy/drama/period/revenge/campy film.