Saturday 9 January 2021

From the archive: "The Dressmaker"

These are good times for fans of what used to be referred to as the “woman’s picture”. Hot on the heels of Brooklyn, this year’s Now, Voyager, and just ahead of next week’s Carol, a 21st century Brief Encounter (itself back in circulation) from the director who remade Mildred Pierce, we find ourselves confronted by The Dressmaker. Jocelyn Moorhouse’s adaptation of a 1950s-set Rosalie Ham novel may well go down as this cycle’s Johnny Guitar: this thoroughly eccentric melodrama attempts to stitch one genre (the revenge Western) within the lining of a conventional costume drama.

Consider, for one, the opening. Kate Winslet’s outsider Tilly Dunnage is returned by coach to her one-horse Outback hometown, trailing rumours she once killed a man, and carrying her weapon of choice: a Singer sewing machine. Soon, Tilly’s smartening up the place – beginning by taking out the decade’s worth of trash that has gathered in her absence around the shack of her single mother Molly (Judy Davis) – and taking potshots at all those who did her wrong, whether shifty mayor Shane Bourne, empathy-free chemist Barry Otto or vicious schoolmistress Kerry Fox.

Rather shamefully, this is Moorhouse’s first directorial outing since 1997’s A Thousand Acres, and both its vices and virtues reside in the fact the project is beholden to no contemporary trend whatsoever. As Tilly begins to work her magic on the community, The Dressmaker vaguely resembles those cosily middlebrow, ensemble-driven ventures that make up such a major part of the British film industry. Yet Moorhouse factors in more mischief than you’d find in a Kinky Boots, say, and a headstrong, hell-for-leather streak that sees her attempting to resolve a dozen subplots at once.

It would be an understatement to say The Dressmaker is a tad overstuffed: as well as the issue of Tilly’s past, and the various scores she has to settle in the present, the film will encompass, in no particular order, romance with a local Aussie rules hero (Liam Hemsworth, unusually charming), the makeover of the town’s plain Jane (Sarah Snook, chameleonic breakthrough star of February’s Predestination) and the arrival of a rival seamstress (Sacha Horler), not to mention the mystery of Molly’s errant possum. (Not a euphemism.)

That the whole holds together may be down to the credibly fraught mother-daughter bond, along which all these other fripperies can be hung out to dry. Even with this clutter, The Dressmaker proves a more than decent star vehicle: Winslet, granted a wardrobe change with every other scene, gets to play both fierceness and sensitivity as it turns out this chic avenger really needs a hug, and while Davis begins in amusing crone mode, heckling Gloria Swanson on a rare night out at the flicks, she, too, softens with maternal pride as her offspring puts the town to rights.

There will inevitably be those – particularly anyone allergic to that strain of frenetic, potentially fatiguing Aussie camp that powered Priscilla and Strictly Ballroom – who want the battiness taken in a little; even its admirers might concede that the most rewarding themes get concealed beneath an avalanche of frills and ruches. Yet as the fiery finale – less high fashion, more High Plains Drifter – demonstrates, Moorhouse still knows how to make a scene: equal parts dippily pleasurable and wholly absurd, The Dressmaker remains moderately, if not absolutely, fabulous.

(MovieMail, November 2015)

The Dressmaker screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 11.40pm.

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