Dark comedy and stunning fashion shine in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s newest Australian film
Laughter abounds with Kate Winslet and the delightfully quirky cast of The Dressmaker
Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Starring Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Judy Davis, Caroline Goodall
Picture a small, dusty town evocative of the American Wild West. Now, in lieu of cowboys, gunslingers, and rugged beards, imagine a small pack of women milling around town aimlessly, leaning dramatically against pillars, and stretching theatrically atop ladders, all while dressed in the finest haute couture more appropriate on a Milan or Paris runway rather than in the Australian Outback. It is precisely this sort of visual and contextual dissonance successfully powering the darkly comedic engine of The Dressmaker, an Australian film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, that keeps the viewer engrossed and laughing for the majority of its 118-minute runtime.
Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns as the titular dressmaker to Dungatar, her childhood town, in a melodramatic swirl of dark shadows and glamorous fashion, both literally and figuratively. She arrives in the middle of the night, suddenly, resplendent in a self-made black dress that the amiable and delightfully theatrical Sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving), admires, rather astutely, as a Dior-inspired creation. In line with the high-fashion designs of Tilly Dunnage, Moorhouse presents a highly-stylized film that is colored in rich and saturated tones that pop against the pale beige dust clouds of the Australian Outback. Unexpected camera angles and close-ups give this film a fresh visual spin.
To the surprise of the eclectic cast of townspeople in Dungatar — who include Tilly’s own mad, solitary mother Molly (Judy Davis), a hunchbacked chemist who cannot stop running once he starts, an old gossip who spends all of her scenes eating hash brownies, and a grieving mother who has minor panic attacks whenever someone steps off the meticulously laid out newspaper trail in her hallway — Tilly has come back to investigate the murder of a young boy that she had been accused of committing just prior to her shameful exile so many years ago. Though most of the town is quick to dismiss Tilly’s objections to her guilt, she finds support in Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a local farmer with whom she strikes up a romantic relationship. Despite the charming allure of the two lead actors who have proven themselves in the past as compelling romantic leads, the scripting of this relationship makes it seem too sugar-sweet and trite, making it seem more of a functional plot device than an emotionally-relevant connection.
The first two thirds of the film are focused on the murky circumstances of the murder, propelled along at a comfortable pace by the town dynamic and the clues and twists that Tilly begins to dig up. The plot also benefits from wheels greased by well-timed laughs and surprises.
A key contributor to this dark levity is Judy Davis, an Academy Award nominee and two- time BAFTA winner, who truly shines as Mad Molly, Tilly’s wild-eyed, snarky, and unabashedly blunt mother. Her performance is so nuanced that she manages to create a character who strikes both a sympathetic and comedic chord throughout the film, whether she is grappling with the frustrations of a fading memory or taking stealthy sips from someone else’s hip flask.
Perhaps most scene-stealing of all, however, are the costumes themselves. Designed by Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce, the high fashion dresses that invade this sleepy town stand on their own as stunning works of art and design, from the magnetic red dress that draws the gaze of every rugby player in Dungatar to the crisp white pleats of a shawl reminiscent of majestic bird wings. In addition to her investigative bent, Tilly also shakes the town up by providing them with these impressive creations, turning heads and changing minds about the power of tasteful fashion.
The film falters in its third act with a rapid-fire series of bizarre and tonally dissonant events that leave the viewer reeling at the suddenly overbearing solemnity and darkness. Like the relationship between Tilly and Teddy, these scenes appear to serve simply as an inciting force and motivating cause for the protagonist. However, this build-up ultimately leads to a tonal return to form in the film’s climax in which revenge is finally, and quite satisfyingly, served.
The final scenes only reiterate the dark humor, spectacle, and strong cast of characters that continuously elevate this film from a simple mystery or revenge comedy-drama into an entertaining, engaging, and visually delightful experience.