Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Ah, Australia. A wealthy, populous, English-speaking country with a great big film industry. This is the first country from which I had already seen films before starting this challenge. Australia’s best-known films range from the grind-house to the art-house, from Mad Max to Rabbit Proof Fence. Spoiled for choice, I’ve decided to settle for one of my recent favourites – Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker.
The film’s promotional images present it as a prim and stuffy period drama in the Outback, but that’s really a disservice. The always-wonderful Kate Winslet stars as Tilly Dunnage, a glamorous seamstress who returns to her hometown in rural 1950s Australia to settle a mystery from her childhood with a dangerous combination of cunning, seduction, and haute couture fashion knowledge. To go into specifics would be to spoil the film’s many surprises, but what follows is an unpredictable story that is alternately funny, shocking, touching, and bittersweet, but consistently compelling.
In my view, what makes The Dressmaker so engaging is the way it plays with genre. It is at once a murder mystery, a revenge drama, a romance, and a (very) dark comedy. The opening sequence, wherein a lone, enigmatic hero(ine) drifts into a small desert town, even has touches of a spaghetti western.
Indeed, the director has described the film as “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine.” That’s as fair a comparison as any. I was also reminded of Lars von Trier’s Dogville which, too, involved a mysterious woman ingratiating herself into a remote community of eccentric townsfolk. For reasons that I won’t get into here, I’ve never really liked Dogville, but that formula certainly works well here. Like Dogville, everybody in Dungatar has something to hide – from the cross-dressing police constable to the adulterous town councilor.
The Dressmaker received somewhat mixed reviews upon its release. I think a lot of that comes down to its refusal to behave – to be pinned down by a single genre, tone, or style. Some critics called that “uneven”, and that’s not entirely unfair, but sometimes a little unevenness is just what a story needs. I know it would be a cliché for me to say that the movie “has something for everyone”, but what the heck. It’s the movie that’s original, not me.