The Dressmaker tells the story of an outwardly successful middle-aged woman named Tilly (Kate Winslet) who returns home to rural Australia, after having been ostracized from the town as a young girl. Most of the small town, including her own mother (Judy Davis), is not pleased to see her back. Regardless, she makes her entrance as colorful and fiery as possible and forges a place for herself despite the whispers and hostility of the townfolk.
The cinematography is completely gorgeous. The story is set in Dungatar, a part of Australia that evokes a sense of Oklahoma circa the dust bowl or the kind of Kansas that only exists in the Wizard of Oz. The barren dirtiness of the landscape is showcased in stark shots of decrepit buildings, dirty streets, and naked trees against empty skylines. This very deliberate setting eventually becomes the backdrop to characters wearing bold, colorful dresses in a way that seems to visually applaud fashion for being powerful and interesting while also admitting that high fashion might just be completely ridiculous.
I hate to be cliché about it, but The Dressmaker is an emotional rollercoaster. The fulcrum of the story is the relationship between a mother and daughter, but there are competing sub-plots of a murder mystery and a romance which occasionally usurp the story of mother/daughter storyline entirely. The overall tone of a black comedy allows the film to push boundaries and upset audience expectations regularly. Moments that the audience expects to end happily wind up being the introduction to the next tragic theme and the darkest of moments are interrupted by well-placed moments of comedy.
The talent in this film is extraordinary. Every character is a little bit larger than life, caricatures that are just reasonable enough to make an audience feel in on the jokes without ever suspending their disbelief. The script lends itself to stand out performances by all, but especially by Winslet, Davis, and Hugo Weaving.
One of my favorite casting choices was Liam Hemsworth as Winslet’s love interest. Hemsworth is a solid fifteen years younger than Winslet, so the casting is an obvious response to Hollywood’s habit of usually casting love stories with large age differences in reverse. Much of this movie’s strength lies in similar subtle feminist moments: the film reverses the genders in many of Hollywood’s storytelling habits. For instance, it is a widely criticized reality that women exist almost exclusively as love interests or mothers in Hollywood. In The Dressmaker, the opposite is true. The primary characters of the story are women and most of the men exist only in relation to their partners. Despite this, The Dressmaker does not exist in a parallel universe where gender roles are reversed: women are still primarily homemakers and men have careers. It is merely the shifting of perspective that gives us a world made up of women with deep personal lives.
The Dressmaker also excels in its acknowledgement of women who suffer at the hands of men, often their own partners. One woman’s husband is a notorious cheater who drugs and rapes her regularly. Another woman’s husband is a wife-beater and refers to most of the women in the town in a derogatory way, which the script suggests is probably because of his own perversions. The lovely thing about all the dark stories about abuse is that even though they are gross, they are understated in a way that is very true to life.
There is a love story in the middle of the movie, which briefly disrupts the other narratives and might be the best tongue-in-cheek criticism of Hollywood romance that I have ever seen. Winslet’s character avoids her romance with Teddy (Hemsworth) for as long as possible, invoking every manifestation of the hard to get narrative that we have been fed for the last fifty years. Tilly runs barefoot down a dirt road, only to be swept of her feet by Teddy when he chases her down in his car. Tilly measures a half-naked Teddy for a suit, getting tantalizingly close while he explains that the woman he loves (her) does not want him. Teddy wakes up one night with Tilly standing at his bedside with a lantern. The couple sits atop a silo with a picnic dinner and they stare at the stars together. Every last overdone and gooey detail is there. Every romantic moment is just overplayed enough that the audience understands that everyone involved in the creation of this story understands exactly how syrupy it is. It’s still cute. We’re just finally getting the story from a group of writers who know that it’s a little too cute and have fun with that.
The value of a female-led narrative film like this one cannot be understated. Directed by Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse, this is a film to see in theaters and in groups. The gasps and groans and laughter of the people in the theater with me were literally of a different tenor than usual, which was a wonderful, surreal experience. If you want to see a film that completely understands (and really probably loves) Hollywood, but wants to approach it with a sense of humor and an inkling for progress, this film will not disappoint. The acting is superb, the story is full of surprises, and the jokes are both subtle and in your face. This is not a film to miss.