This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, November 2015
A word of warning – The Dressmaker is all at once elegant and beautiful, over-the-top and mannered, and a lot of fun. But it’s probably not what you’re expecting from a film set in the Australian outback of the 1950s, starring Kate Winslet and Hugo Weaving. So gird your loins.
The opening titles create a stunning set-up which looks and sounds like the love child of True Detective and a Leone western. Indeed, the first line out of Winslet’s mouth sets the blackly comedic tone, following a familiar stranger-comes-to-town shot whereby shoes step off a train and a bag hits the dust. Only in this fabulous pastiche the hero carries a Singer sewing machine instead of a gun – although her choice of instrument is tuned to cause just as much havoc.
With a pitch-perfect Aussie accent, Winslet is intoxicating as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, returning to the very small town from which she was evicted as a child, to care for her mother and solve a personal mystery while avoiding the ghastly townsfolk. The only person who’ll give her the time of day is old schoolmate Teddy who has grown up into the terribly handsome Liam Hemsworth. The plot slips between noir and pantomime, with aesthetically stunning production design and a dark sense of humour. This tone may discombobulate some audiences, but once you ease into the theatricality of it all, you can’t look away.
Based on the bestselling novel by Rosalie Ham, the plot moves apace through farce and tragedy thanks to tight script-work by director Jocelyn Moorhouse (whose husband, P.J. Hogan of Muriel’s Wedding fame, also contributed). And there’s plenty of story to get through, with a luxurious amount of screen time for each of the terrific supporting cast – from a delightfully odd Weaving to an embittered Kerry Fox and the brilliantly shape-shifting Sarah Snook (Predestination).
While some of the old-fashioned prejudices and stereotypes may jar and certain farcical moments may test the audience’s goodwill, The Dressmaker is as fresh and energetic as any film you’ve seen this year.