The Dressmaker

(M) Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth

The Dressmaker is set in 1951 and tells the story of seamstress Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) and her return to her hometown to uncover her past. In an effort to fit into the town that shunned her, Tilly sets about transforming the town’s inhabitants on the outside, through her skill as a designer. She does this without fully realising the cover-ups and lies that remain central to their true natures. As Tilly pieces together the frocks and suits, and the joys of introducing local matrons to French haute couture slowly wears thin, like the Emperor’s new clothes, high fashion can’t fix some of the problems that have been concealed just below the surface.

From The Dressmaker‘s opening scenes and soundtrack, director Jocelyn Moorhouse gives us an Australian version of the classic western, complete with the loner returning to a small town. And inhabiting the remote town Tilly returns to is a selection of the most iconic characters and caricatures yet collected on screen thanks to the cream of Australian acting talent.

Despite such notable surroundings, this is Winslet and Judy Davis’ film.  The role of Tilly requires an air of sophistication, level-headedness and strength of character that Winslet brings to the role of Tilly in spades. Her AACTA Award for Best Leading Actress is well-deserved (as are other accolades the film has received).

Davis’ almost unrecognisable performance as Tilly’s mother Molly justly won her the AACTA for Best Supporting Actress. She’s an outlandish comic recluse who seems to relish having an audience to play to, cheerfully describing herself as a “hag” to whoever addresses her and leering at family friend Teddy’s (Liam Hemsworth) muscular torso when he drops round to be measured for a suit.

Special mention should also go to Hugo Weaving, as the cross-dressing Sergeant Horatio Farrat​, his role requiring more than a little reprise of Pricilla: Queen of the Desert.

The central relationship between Tilly and Teddy (her only ally and friend) is, at first, a little hard to accept given the actors’ age gap. But this is a very minor mis-step in an otherwise hugely entertaining film.

Moorhouse collaborated on the script with husband and fellow film-maker P.J. Hogan. With comedy and melodrama delivered in equal measure, there is a lot of resemblance in tone to his films, particularly his biggest Australian hit, Muriel’s Wedding. But Moorhouse wasn’t joking, though, when she likened her script to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

The stark grey production design that pops with flashes of colour and sepia-toned flashbacks is courtesy of Don McAlpine’s excellent cinematography. Of course special mention also goes to Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson, who provided the haute couture style befitting the movie’s title.

However you may have imagined or expected this film to play out, after seeing its trailer and advertising, this is not a sentimental fable about a newcomer coming in and transforming the town, in the vein of Chocolat.to the costume designs with the haute couture style befitting of the movie title.

Adapted from the book of the same name by Rosalie Ham, the surprising plot twists and developments are at times bittersweet and hilarious but always entertaining. Like Tilly’s favourite colour — red — this film stands out as an Australian film worth watching.

Adrian Drayton

Adrian Drayton is the Director of Reel Dialogue. A film critic and commentator on culture for 20 years, he believes in the power of cinema and the power of God to start conversations about faith and culture. He is also a massive Star Wars nerd.