‘The Dressmaker’ Has a Distinct Style and Personality

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Having a bad reputation can follow you. It doesn’t matter whether the events in question or true or not, because in matters of reputation perception trumps reality. In The Dressmaker, the new film from director Jocelyn Moorhouse, Kate Winselt plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who has a bad reputation. Tilly returns to her hometown full of eccentrics but lacking in paved roads only to find that her past discretions haven’t been forgotten or forgiven by her judgmental neighbors. The resulting film is one with a bewildering yet charming personality, a movie that undergoes some of the most drastic tonal shifts of recent memory. Whether treading in riotous comedy or heartbreaking drama, The Dressmaker has an irrepressible personality that will win you over throughout its ups and downs.

It’s 1951 and Tilly has just returned to her dusty hometown of Dungatar, Australia. Upon her late night return with nobody within an ear shot, she proclaims, “I’m back, you bastards.” Tilly takes up residence with her mother “Mad” Molly (Judy Davis), whose ramshackle house is full of trash and living creatures. With the exception of the town’s crossdressing policeman Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) and a rugby playing beefcake Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), Tilly’s return isn’t exactly welcomed by the denizens of Dungatar. But Tilly is able to make herself invaluable to the very people who shun her through her virtuoso use of a needle and thread, making glamourous dresses for the women that injects a bit of glamour into the dusty little town. Even though she does amazing work, the mysterious events of her youth haunt her reputation and it’s only a matter of time before the old demons are resurrected. (The circumstances of Tilly’s infamy are best left unexplained before viewing.)

There’s really a lot going on in The Dressmaker, and the swirling currents of quirky comedy, serious drama, and romance might leave some viewers dizzy. But Jocelyn Moorhouse and co-writer PJ Hogan bring a deft balance to all the disparate emotional aspects of the story in adapting Rosalie Ham’s novel. The extreme tonal shifts may be off putting to some viewers who expect their movies to follow a straight line, but The Dressmaker is greatly boosted by these tonal shifts – much like an Australian Billy Wilder film, using witty dialogue and odd situations for laughs before pulling out the rug from under your feet with heartbreaking tragedy.

Kate Winslet is a firecracker in the film. She’s tough, she’s sultry, but there’s always that wounded feeling behind the steely exterior. Already one of the great actresses of her generation, Winslet shows her unparalleled talents in playing Tully. Equally impressive is Judy Davis, who walks away with most of the film’s funniest moments as Tully’s mother. Davis is able to match Winslet in keeping a cold exterior with a touch of heart, and displays some impeccable comedic timing throughout the film. The biggest surprise in The Dressmaker is Liam Hemsworth, who finally gives a noteworthy performance after being hoisted upon audiences for a few years now with little in the way of results. The relationship between Hemsworth’s Teddy and Winslet’s Tilly is a nice inversion of the typical age disparity present in countless other movies. Rounding out the cast is Hugo Weaving giving a manic comedic performance as the crossdressing police officer of Dunagar, who is honestly not much more eccentric than any of the other town folk.

The Dressmaker really has a visual style that compliments the bizarre personalities of its characters. Moorhouse’s direction and the cinematography by Donald McAlpine give the film a visual look that feels a bit like a subdued version of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. At times, The Dressmaker feels like a western with its rinky dink town and dirt roads, but the glamorous costumes that Tilly designs for herself and the denizens of Dunagar make for an amusing juxtaposition – like Audrey Hepburn decided to take a walk across the set of High Noon. That clash between high style and low classes works in unison with the film’s ability to jarringly shift between comedy and drama, making The Dressmaker unlike practically any movie to grace the screen in 2016.

You can’t accuse The Dressmaker of putting style over substance because it has both in spades. Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film may not always work best between its exaggerated tonal shifts, but it’s pretty consistently captivating. The Dressmaker is a well-acted film with its own distinct personality. The movie also has one of the most cathartic conclusions in cinema this year, a moment that is equally comedic. Laughter and tears come in equal measure in The Dressmaker. Tilly Dunnage may have a bad reputation, but sometimes being bad can be so, so good.

The Dressmaker
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

With a distinct look and personality, The Dressmaker blends comedy and drama in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s stylish film featuring wonderful performances from Kate Winslet and Judy Davis.

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