Mark Reviews Movies

The Dressmaker (2016)


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse

Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Shane Bourne, Alison Whyte, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, James Mackay, Hayley Magnus, Julia Blake, Gyton Grantley, Sacha Horler, Shane Jacobson, Barry Otto

MPAA Rating: R (for brief strong language and a scene of violence)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 9/23/16 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 22, 2016

The central mystery of The Dressmaker relies on inconvenient forgetfulness, convenient remembrances, unreliable witnesses, a collection of lies, a character who exists only to provide essential testimony well past the point it would be helpful, and a town filled with gossipy people who only seek to confirm their biases. It's the sort of narrative that is intentionally constructed to keep vital information from the audience, because the mystery doesn't matter. Well, it does matter, although its primary function here is to give us a reason to stick with a story that otherwise isn't of particular interest.

It's a story based on a lie that is as old as the time when people first started living together in tight-knit communities: Your neighbors are awful, and you are the only person among them who knows the truth and can rise above the pettiness. You are, of course, the only good and decent person of the bunch.

In the movie, set at some point in the 1950s, the town is Dungatar, a rural village in Australia. It's the sort of place where everybody is the town gossip but where nobody sees themselves in that role, because the important news about this or that person over here and there needs to be told, after all. It would un-neighborly to keep such information to oneself, and it's only polite to keep what you think you've learned from the subject of such information. The person knows what he or she did, anyway.

The movie, based on Rosalie Ham's novel of the same name, offers an assortment of busybodies and rumormongers, spousal abusers and other unrepentant sinners, and people of various mental faculties. It even throws in a cross-dressing police sergeant because it can.

What we learn is that people who know they have a harmless secret they must keep are actually decent folks, while the rest—people who don't recognize how awful their own secrets—are fairly deplorable. The protagonist is Myrtle Dunnage (Kate Winslet), who prefers to go by "Tilly." She has returned to the town, after a life unwillingly spent in Europe, to learn whether she's of the former or latter variety of Dungatar natives.

She has also returned to care for her mother, who is known around town as "Mad" Molly (Judy Davis). Molly insists that she doesn't know her daughter, although she knows of Tilly by reputation. That reputation is one of a murderer. Tilly herself doesn't recall the incident that resulted in the rumor that, as a child, she killed a boy and in her being sent away from Dungatar. She means to find out the truth, though, and also to get revenge on anyone in town who wronged her. In the meantime, she starts up a dress shop in her mother's hillside house.

There are two, distinct narratives here, told with two, equally distinct tones. Of superficial importance is the alleged murder from decades ago, which plays out in pieces of an incomplete flashback and, in the present, which sets the boy's father (Shane Bourne) on a mission to sabotage Tilly's return (while keeping his wife, played by Alison Whyte, drugged on regular servings of nerve tonic). Farrat (Hugo Weaving), the cop with a habit of wearing women's clothes, helps her search, while Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), a local stud, offers moral support and, he hopes, more. Tilly fears she is cursed (a fear that leads to the statement of some famous last words) and keeps Teddy's romantic advances at bay.

This is all very serious business for director Jocelyn Moorhouse (who also co-wrote the screenplay with P.J. Hogan), and it's completely at odds with the movie's other mode. In it, the movie explores the temperamental nature of the townsfolk, whose moral outrages and loyalties shift depending on what they can get out of holding a certain stance. Tilly's return prompts an eruption of ire, not only because she has the gall to come back to the scene of her crime but also because she, in her finest dresses from Paris, makes them look bad. As soon as Tilly shows what she can do with a sewing machine, by transforming local wallflower Gert (Sarah Snook) into a head-turning beauty, the women in town become loyal customers.

The satirical elements here are a bit too obvious to make much of an impression, and by the end of the movie, the characters who remain judgmental bores have become inhuman parodies. The tonal rift between the movie's two, main stories isn't a significant problem at first. Since the particulars of obfuscating the mystery of Tilly's past are transparently contrived, there's more reason to focus on the ways Moorhouse, Hogan, and the cast create a stifling yet still comic atmosphere of distrust and dishonesty.

It's the story's final act, though, that falters on account of the split. The body count of The Dressmaker becomes surprisingly high—on account of accidents, illness, inattentiveness, and outright murder—and does so quite rapidly. The movie never achieves a balance between approaching Tilly's story with sincerity and mocking the community that has condemned her. Once the bodies start falling, the movie's inability to make up its mind on an approach sinks it.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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