The Dressmaker, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, Unconditional Love), tells the story of Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (Kate Winslet), who returns to the town in which she grew up: Dungatar, in rural Australia. Ostensibly, she moves there to care for her aging mother (a very funny Judy Davis) but her real motive is to attempt to recall why she was forced to leave the town as a young girl. According to local gossip, she was sent away for killing a boy, and the idea that she is a cursed murderer hangs over her when she returns. Along her path of discovery, she finds love with a local man, Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), reconnects with her mother, and even inspires the local cop (Hugo Weaving) come to terms with his identity.1
In the film’s first half, Tilly returns from her sophisticated life with the rallying cry of “I’m back, you bastards!”. Her return not only allows her to prove that she has made it in the world but also to take on the rumours of her childhood. This combination of goals makes for an absurd pairing of detective thriller (for instance, we meet the town policeman before meeting Tilly’s mother) and a heart-warming romp. One minute, we’re cheering for Tilly because she is gazing up at the stars with the local heart throb, the next minute we’re wondering if, in a fit of rage, she beat a boy to death with a brick. In another, we’re laughing at slapstick, then the next minute we’re witnessing a husband drug his wife, then rape her. The strangest aspect of the film is that these two distinct elements, the light-hearted and the sinister plot mechanics, are treated with the same jovial tone and switched between so quickly that we are left wondering exactly what sort of world we have been invited into. Technically, this is a brave move, and were any element more extreme The Dressmaker would be a mostly ridiculous film. Thankfully Moorhouse manages to strike a careful balance, often evoking the dark humour of a Beckett play, with its world a relatively plausible representation of an unforgiving and tragic universe.
Much like David Fincher’s recent Gone Girl, The Dressmaker’s second half is all about the unraveling of the myth of the first. In Gone Girl, this transition is marked by a change in narrator. In The Dressmaker, it is marked by an unconventional plot development that derails the happily-ever-after ending we’ve come to expect from films of this ilk. The film consciously escalates into a tragicomic revenge plot littered with references to Macbeth. Just as the local women are transformed into exotic creatures by Tilly’s dressmaking abilities, so too is the film transformed – its experimental structure alluding to the transformative abilities of the artist. By its end, it becomes apparent that Tilly’s town is, in fact, just a few buildings – giving it the feel of a theatre set. This enables us to understand the town’s inhabitants as actors and Tilly’s extreme final act as a metaphor – she will no longer be cast as the cursed victim in a play penned by small town gossip.2
I would also argue that The Dressmaker is a fascinating feminist film. It prioritises Tilly’s relationship with her mother over her romantic relationship. Indeed, there are only two likable men in the film and both are deeply flawed. Weaving’s local cop is kind but cowardly; he also happily gives up confidential police evidence for some fancy fabrics. Teddy is a hilarious caricature of Prince Charming. He has not a mean bone in his body; he dedicates his energies to caring for his disable brother and pesters Tilly with lines like, “I can take care of you if you’ll let me.” When Tilly wants a mirror, his grand romantic gesture is to stack lots of mirrors outside her house. It is a foreshadowing of things to come: he is well-meaning but impractical, which eventually leads to his downfall. It is also symbolic: it is not Teddy who is capable of saving Tilly, but Tilly herself. By examining herself objectively, instead of through the eyes of those who forsake her, Tilly is able to see herself as no longer the victim. She transcends the trope of helpless woman saved only by the love of a good man, thus rendering Teddy obsolete as both plot device and character.
In short, The Dressmaker is a fascinating and surprisingly experimental film, which manages to also retain the penetrability and broad appeal that many truly avant-garde films lack.