For those unfamiliar with the novel on which it’s based, “The Dressmaker” is a very different film than expected. Heavily influenced by Western and Murder Mystery genres, with a splash of Wes Anderson and a third act that could have come from the dark minds of the Coen Brothers, it’s a unique concoction that is sure to polarize audiences.
In the early 1950s, Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns to her impossibly small Australian hometown of Dungatar. It’s been more than 20 years since she was sent away, blamed for the murder of a fellow child, a crime she has no recollection of at all. Tilly’s train rolls into town in the middle of the night, her arrival cloaked in darkness. The camera lingers at her faithful weapon of choice, a Singer 201K2 sewing machine as she defiantly states to herself, “I’m back you bastards.”
Tilly’s return is two-fold. First is to care for her mother (Judy Davis) whose health, both mental and physical, is fading. Second is to face the demons of her past and clear her name if indeed she is innocent. Even her mother seems to have a poor recollection of the events surrounding the death. The almost cartoonish town folk are less than welcoming. Not only is she a reminder of their dark past, but like many small-town-citizens, they despise anyone who has made a better life for themselves elsewhere. Tilly’s banishment ended up being a blessing in disguise for her. Having been trained by Madeleine Vionnet in Paris, she is now a master dressmaker. Surpassing mere technical skills, Tilly is able to almost magically transform people with her textile wizardry. At first, she attempts to win over the women in the town by making them dresses that would make Audrey Hepburn envious. The tactic is only partially successful as the river of snobbery runs deep in these simple women. Soon, a “hired gun” arrives, a second seamstress (Sacha Horler) who they hope will put Tilly back in her place beneath them. Only two people in the town outwardly sympathize with Tilly, both men. Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), the very law officer who regretfully sent her away, and Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) a former classmate. Sergeant Farrat is a kindred spirit and shares her passion for rare and exotic fabrics. Teddy is committed to winning Tilly’s heart and driving away her superstition of having a cursed life.
The story progresses in a fairly predictable, yet incredibly delightful manner until the beginning of the third act. Suddenly the film is flipped on its head and audience members will either find themselves disenchanted or even more invested. The path the story takes is unexpected, but also what makes this film (and book) stand out amongst the crowd. Regardless it is sure to trigger post-movie conversations about karma, curses, vengeance, and personal strength.
So many films are almost unbearably similar to one another. The more you watch the more you can see the underlying genre formulas used to craft them. While many are still excellent movies, ones that break the mold and become much more than expected such as “The Dressmaker” should be celebrated.
NOTE: It’s a shame this is rated R. In nearly every country besides the US it is rated at a PG, 12 or 13 level.There is no nudity and contains far less violence and cruelty than the PG-13 “The Magnificent Seven.” The R-rating is apparently triggered by a second use of the F-Word.