The film opens with Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) arriving in small 1950s Western Victorian town called Dungatar. She steps off the train to music straight out of every gunslinger Western ever filmed and as she does so, the camera focuses on her weapon of choice, a portable Singer sewing machine. Tilly specialises, and dresses, in haute couture.
You know from this moment that this movie is going to be fun.
Tilly has changed her name from Myrtle and her new name means someone who is wild and dangerous but hides behind a sweet smile. Her surname, Dunnage, means personal baggage.
The names of many of the other characters have a Dickensian charm. Hugo Weaving is wonderful as Sergeant Horatio Farrat, a cross-dressing policeman who can be reduced to a quivering wreck by a feather boa.
Horatio Farrat checks out a hat
Sarah Snook plays Gertrude Pratt who changes her name to Trudy after being outfitted by Tilly for a local dance and winning the heart of William Beaumont.
Gertrude, later Trudy, Pratt
Gertrude is a member of the Pratt family, who own the general store.
Her mother, Muriel, played by Rebecca Gibney is keen to see Gertrude hitched to the scion of the local squattocracy, William Beaumont. His mother, Elsbeth Beaumont, is equally determined that the match will not go ahead and there is a series of hilarious scenes where Trudy, outfitted for her wedding to William in a bridal dress of truly tragic proportions, is pursued by the relentless Elspeth.
Tilly has returned to Dungatar to stay with her mother, Molly (played by Judy Davis) and to discover the truth about her past, when she was (unjustly as it turns out) accused of murder and to bring retribution and revenge down on those responsible.
Vulture claims that director Jocelyn Moorhouse has described this as “Unforgiven with a sewing machine.” Certainly, there are many elements in the film that link The Dressmaker to the wild west genre, if not to Unforgiven, which, for all its violence, is far more nuanced film.
The town itself looks more like a wild West town than the town from Western Victoria, something that all Western Victorians who seen the film comment on.
Once this wild west link has been established in the first scenes of the film, it provides a motif that runs through the entire film. Tilly is a woman who has been wronged and is now prepared to seek retribution.
Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t work particularly well in the film. Some of the baddies are clearly and obviously identifiable: Shane Bourne’s town Councillor Evan Pettyman, Barry Otto’s local chemist Percival Almanac and Kerry Fox’s as the wonderfully named schoolteacher, Beulah Harridiene. These are the three characters, whose villainy is clearly established in a series of flashbacks, all come to unpleasant ends.
But many of the other characters, such as Trudy Pratt, are amongst those who are transformed by the haute couture dresses that Tilly makes for them creating some bond of sympathy between these characters.
The incongruous combination of Vogue Haute Couture and the Wimmera
Many critics have commented on the thematic similarities between this aspect of The Dressmaker and Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat which starred Juliette Binoche. In both films, a woman comes to a small village and begins transforming the lives of the inhabitants through magic of their specific crafts.
But this idea gets lost and the women on whom Tilly has lavished so much care and attention are lumped in with all the other evildoers in the town in the fiery conclusion.
There is a love of interest between Tilly and Teddy McSwiney played by a breathlessly spunky Liam Hemsworth, here being measured for a suit by Molly and Tilly.
Why the two are attracted to each other, apart from the more obvious physical reasons, is not made clear. Certainly the McSwiney family live on the wrong side of the tracks in a town that redefines”wrong side of the tracks”.
The McSwiney family at home
It is difficult to see how someone like Tilly who has lived the major fashion capitals of Europe would find someone who lives in a shanty attractive.
Di and I were discussing this aspect of the film and she said that it was unlikely that this particular environment would have someone as good as Teddy McSwiney.
She’s right. He’s hugely and unbelievably attractive and the love interest just adds to a number of the inconsistencies in the film. All of which will be forgiven.
The death of Teddy is a jarring note in the tone of the film. His death provides the pivotal point in emotional tone of the narrative as both Molly and Tilly become determined to wreak retribution on the town.
It’s rather like the death of Polonius in Hamlet. After this, Hamlet’s soul-searching comes to an end and the play rushes towards its bloodied conclusion.
By way of comparison is interesting to compare the body count in The Dressmaker with that in Hamlet. In The Dressmaker there are five deaths, two committals to asylums and one imprisonment. There is retribution for all the other characters when Tilly also destroys Dungatar. In Hamlet, there are eight deaths which constitutes all of the main characters except Horatio.
The Dressmaker, like Hamlet, is a revenge play. There are a number of parallels between the two as result of those similarities.
In revenge plays, there are lots of corpses and the general mayhem tends to become fairly indiscriminate, there is a hero/heroine, often flawed, who seeks to redress some wrong from the past, there are plays within plays (a competitive Eisteddfod in The Dressmaker and the Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet.) There is also a sense that ghosts have been laid to rest and curses have been lifted in the endings.
For me, the best part of the film was the standout performance of Judy Davis as Tilly’s mother, Molly. It’s a wonderful performance about the redeeming power of love, recollection and acceptance. It is also a performance shot through with humour.
Davis won the best supporting actor awards at AACTA. Kate Winslet was named Best Lead Actress while Hugo Weaving claimed the other Supporting Actor award.
It is these is tremendously strong acting performances and a superb supporting cast that is the great strength of this film. There are shortcomings: improbabilities in the plot, an uneven treatment of the major themes of the film, and a failure to have any nuances in the development or treatment of the minor characters in the film.
It’s not a great film, but it’s a fun film.