The Film Experience
September 16, 2015
Glenn here. I’m not in Toronto (booo!), but I did get to see this homegrown film recently so let’s talk about The Dressmaker. This is a film that makes a lot better sense when the end credits roll and you realize that director Jocelyn Moorhouse co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, none other than P.J. Hogan. It makes sense because The Dressmaker, despite the refinement suggested by its prestige audience-courting title, is kindacrazy. It is a buoyantly excessive feat of far-fetched camp that isn’t as good as its highly-stylized cinematic cousins of the early 1990s such as Strictly Ballroom, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Hogan’s own Muriel’s Wedding, yet which nonetheless has enough of a unique voice to work as a very Australian piece of crowd-pleasuring fluff. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Betsy Johnson designing an haute couture line for Dior.[more…]
This film marks Moorhouse’s first film in a whopping 18 years, and her first Australian one since Proof in 1991. You would be forgiven for thinking the filmmaker who made that film, one of the true Australian greats, as well as How to Make an American Quilt and A Thousand Acres didn’t have a hand in The Dressmaker, but stranger things have happened and maybe she’s just a little bit rusty behind the camera. Her latest stars KateWinslet as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who as a child left her small hometown in rural Australia under a cloud of suspicion in the death of a fellow schoolboy. Shipped off to a boarding school and then spending her years touring the world’s fashion capitals like Paris and Milan, she returns to Dungatar older and determined to uncover the truth. And because the motto of this movie is “Why not?!?”, at the same time Myrtle sets up a dressmaking business in the home of her aging, mentally frail mother who the townspeople have nicknamed Mad Mona, played by a divinely scene-chewing Judy Davis, and turning the town into the most surprising of fashion hubs.
“Unforgiven with a sewing machine” is how The Dressmaker was described early on in its life, and by the time this film’s hectic revenge-laden climax involving Macbeth, Gilbert and Sullivan and a red carpet comes to pass audiences will have likely already decided whether they are on board with its fashionably deranged hijinks or not. While I was certainly taken by surprise, what makes the film work is how in spite of all the lunacy on parade – I haven’t mentioned Hugo Weaving as a cross-dressing Sergeant and Barry Otto as a slut-shaming hunchback, or Sacha Horler as a rival designer brought into town to put Myrtle out of business – is the precisely human qualities the actors bring to their roles.
Even if many characters are one-note, they still feel like they have a shared history woven through their lives in Dungatar. It’s a testament to actors like Winslet and Davis that they can navigate the wild tonal shifts and find some sharp, poignant moments within it – and watching them act horny with lust over the 25-year-old Liam Hemsworth (his best, most charming performance to date) in his under-shorts is a deliciously wicked delight.Winslet, especially, hasn’t felt this refreshingly unbound in ages, helped by her voice work that plays with Myrtle’s put on plum British accent that occasionally slides into her natural Australian one (once again spot on as previously heard in Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke!) Meanwhile those in smaller roles like Sarah Snook (soon to be introduced to the wide world in Steve Jobs), Shane Jacobson, Rebecca Gibney, Julia Blake, Alison Whyte, and Mark Leonard Winter have moments to shine amid the chaos whether its just a simple line-reading or a look on their face.
Naturally, the costumes by designer Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson are wonderful and play expertly with both character and narrative while amping up the film’s tone as a delightfully entertaining trifle for the eyes. Likewise, the production designers have clearly had a ball reinventing the small town of an American western as a mid-century Australian outpost, the highlight of which is Molly’s Grey Gardens inspired abode. The Dressmaker is indeed a western, but with guns and spurs replaced by hand0beaded stitch work, wide-brimmed hats and pleated sundresses. It doesn’t make a lick of sense at times – is Winslet meant to be the same age of Hemsworth and Snook? Where are these women finding the money to buy such fetching fashions? And the tonal shifts between drama and comedy are fast enough to give you whiplash – but I don’t think that’s really the point. It’s a comedy of disgraceful manners. Whether it tickles your funny bone is likely going to be entirely dependent on how warped your sense of humor is and how easily you can ignore some of its more unsavory elements.
Oscar Chances: It’s out at the end of October in Australia, but with no solid US date it’s hard to say whether it will factor in. Either way the costumes are the only place this film will find itself on Oscar’s radar and could very well be Oscar nominated if somebody has the guts to go for it. Lord knows that branch isn’t shy of tiny films, especially so given it works in the same fashion-conscious realm of design as The Devil Wears Prada and Coco avant Chanel, but with the added bonus on being outrageous.