Dreams do come true after all, and I am not talking about the leap to big city lights from rural obscurity. Liam Hemsworth, few years my junior and twice as good looking no less, got to clap Kate Winslet’s cheeks for the camera, or at least, relished the opportunity to pretend to in an acting role. At a minimum, they did lock lips.
Years ago, when Titanic hit theaters, preteens of the fairer sex swooned over Leo’s dashing Jack while, I imagine, young men of my ilk the world over had the hots for the actor playing Rose. I repeat, the actor playing Rose; Kate Winslet. Kate is not Rose but Rose will always be Kate. Folks, that is called screen transcendence. Since then, both Titanic actors would go on to reap, more or less, a similar reward haul on- and off-set; for Leonardo, the Golden Statue, the serial companionship of drop-dead partners, and De Niro’s spot as Scorsese’s muse; for Kate, a variety of nude scenes, a justifiably respectable career, and marriage; i.e., a life unfolding by the numbers if one were to forego the small spike in hand lotion sales with every such appearance as hers here in The Dressmaker.
The male gaze is effectively pronounced dead, its final resting place a set meant to be a 1950’s Australian village, as this film is directed by one Jocelyn Moorehouse. Despite not shedding any garments for the sake of nudity, when Myrtle Dunnage (Winslet) crashes the ho-hum rhythm of the fictional, outback village of Dungatar, she heads a turnin’. Her appearance, exquisite and evocative of femme fatale imagery, is still that of an assured woman in her craft, both as character and actor. Curvaceous, daring, and conspicuously out of place among her drab and basic local counterparts, it drew chuckles when she turned up for an annual football game to influence its outcome. Elements of love, fashion, and provincialism are stitched together to produce a seemingly light comedy that, no sooner than it drives its hooks in, devolves into a sob story of a crestfallen, surely wronged, character arch type. And a rushed one at that. Alternating between Myrtle and Tilly, her protagonist makes a less than triumphant homecoming for she has unfinished business despite a lifetime’s worth of exile in Paris, as an understudy to the Madeleine Vionnet, alluding to the contrary. And we thought success was the best revenge.
Before a down is played, before a ball is snapped (if Aussie Rules even huddle between plays) it bears mention that Tilly was, and still is, persona non grata in her hometown. Labeled a murderess on sight yet never apprehended upon arrival or thereafter, confirms the power of sordid rumors which germinate in a sewing circle before spreading. Her mother (Judy Davis), a reclusive hoarder and a whore, occupies what looks like prime real estate; the hill house overlooking the main street below. Her father, a conspicuous omission, adds to the numerous and funny quirks exaggerated by the ensemble cast of a small, one-street village perfectly suited as a western set had Tilly not set the whole place ablaze as payback for being branded a killer in the court of public opinion. The murder victim is councilman Pettyman’s son, while the town’s lone policeman, Farrat (Hugo Weaving), a crossdresser and fashion enthusiast, is tacitly coerced into accepting a convenient narrative that sees Myrtle ran out of town, forever a pariah since school age.
Her transformative touch working much like an interior decorator’s, Tilly wins over the town-folk but only briefly. How she navigates prejudices that emanate from either jealousy or scorn is a proposition first left to her wizardry with textiles and the fickle nature of small-town narrow-mindedness. Their intellectual feebleness flip-flops between ambivalence toward Tilly then moral outrage the moment a rival seamstress is introduced as a viable alternative who’s later dismissed as a fraud. Of course this is all Pettyman’s handiwork, whose dealings also include philandering and drugging female guests at his home-hostel. By all indication, Tilly conquers most hurdles with love, first in mending her relationship with Molly, gaining Farrat’s trust and allegiance, and falling hard for Teddy’s chiseled abs (Liam Hemsworth), no homo. Jocelyn, true to source author Rosalie Ham, resorts to misfortune begetting more of the same when Ted dies in a tragicomic accident immediately after consummating their love and Molly dies from a stroke soon after.
In spite of the numerous twists dressed up as closet skeletons so typical of a locale like the one depicted here, the film is a true delight at first before more plot territory is ceded to vengeful motives. Was Tilly, or was she not, set on a path for revenge all along? The comedic overtures grow darker announcing the aforementioned turn despite irreverent set pieces like the town’s geriatric pharmacist suffocating in a puddle while his wife is oblivious nearby, high off hash brownies Molly used to make her as a pain-killer. A series of deaths both accidental and intentional soon follow suggesting Tilly’s presence, working like a plaguing curse, is rubbing off on everybody like bad luck. While not a revelatory work of cinema by any stretch, The Dressmaker is no less a vehicle for Winslet to showcase a rare, show-stealing ability too immense for one actor to assume by themselves on most days. Highly recommended for the sets, costumes, Kate’s one-woman show, and ample servings of acid-mouthed putdowns while amounting to a letdown from failing to make up its mind on there being a premeditated revenge.