The Dressmaker opens with aerial shots of perfectly geometrical golden wheat-fields, crisscrossed by the straight lines of boundaries and roads. It’s like an artist’s cartoon version of Australian agriculture. Zooming in, a silver Pioneer bus rolls into a dusty town and, accompanied by the music of a spaghetti western, out steps the white-hatted stranger, the avenger who’s come to set things right. Except instead of guns, she’s wielding a Singer sewing machine and a killer sense of style. ‘I’m back, you bastards,’ she says as she lights up a cigarette, every blonde hair in place above her perfectly tailored navy blue skirt-suit. Fans of Rosalie Ham’s popular 2000 novel, The Dressmaker, will recognise the tone: heightened realism, with comic flourishes and stabs of gothic horror, grounded by a heroine you can’t help loving and swathes of 1950s fashion that’s undeniably gorgeous.
The year is 1951 and Kate Winslet is Tilly Dunnage (formerly known as Myrtle), returning to Dungatar, the tiny town she left in disgrace as a ten-year-old girl. She’s been abroad in London, Milan and Paris, working with the great fashion designers. Now she’s come back to Hicksville to care for her mentally unstable alcoholic mother, known to the townsfolk as ‘Mad Molly’ (played with relish by Judy Davis). Tilly also needs to unravel the half-remembered mystery of why she was banished and why she feels ‘cursed’. Is she really a ‘murderess’ as the town gossips insist? Gothic flashbacks, depicted in bleached-out tones and off-kilter angles suggest a childhood tragedy in the schoolyard beneath the sinister windmill.
The tragedy has something to do with a dead boy whose mother (Alyson Whyte) has gone mad from the loss of her child, and whose father (a creepy Shane Bourne) keeps her indoors and sedated. These are just some of the neighbours who want Tilly gone. Nobody trusts her, but when she starts to transform the women from drab brown country mice into couture-clad goddesses, the vanity and greed of the townsfolk almost overcomes their prejudice.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof) wrote the script for The Dressmaker with her husband P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) and the film at times seems reminiscent of the outrageous Australian kitsch comedies of the 1990s. Think of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom and of course, Muriel’s Wedding. Echoes of those films are felt not just in the theme of transformation by costume, together with a cast of familiar Australian actors – Hugo Weaving as a delightfully camp cross-dressing cop; Barry Otto as a clownish geriatric villain; Rebecca Gibney as a horny middle-aged wife – but also in the sometimes cruel and acidic comic sensibilities, heavy with pastiche and bizarre shifts of tone.
Grounding it all through some choppy weather (particularly in the film’s final act) is Winslet’s calm grace and beauty. The funniest and most moving scenes involve the mother-daughter relationship (Judy Davis steals the show with comic pathos and many references to Gloria Swanston and Sunset Boulevard) and in the budding romance with hunky local boy Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), whose physical charms are fully dwelt upon in a delicious scene where Tilly measures him up in his underwear to make him a suit. Though Hemsworth is clearly too young to play Winslet’s contemporary, he brings a fairytale charm and sweetness to the role, and this is, after all, a kind of very female fable.
The Dressmaker is enormously good fun, especially if you love clothes and enjoy a makeover montage. Costume designers Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson bring glamour in spades, belying one character’s declaration that ‘A dress can’t change anything!’ With Jewel tones, rich brocades, silks and satins, pleating and draping, we’re shown the magical properties of a great gown. It’s a special treat to see rising talent Sarah Snook as Gertrude, the bespectacled ugly duckling transformed into a haughty and ultimately nasty swan. Veteran DoP Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, My Brilliant Career) knows how to shoot a period film so that it looks both nostalgic and modern. While you may not love the way The Dressmaker solves its dilemmas (it’s perhaps too faithful to the book’s nutty narrative), you’ve got to admire an Australian film that goes out with all guns blazing and gives great heroine.
The Dressmaker premieres at The Toronto International Film Festival this week ahead of its Australian release on October 29 2015