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Seam stress
Even today, terrific new movies without commensurate marketing budgets slip by unnoticed. It makes you wonder how many more little gems out there still remain to be discovered. Camus revels in the truly superb THE DRESSMAKER.
 
"I like to think of it as an emotional rollercoaster. I loved that in the book,
you never knew where the author was taking you. One minute you're laughing
your head off and the next minute you find that you've been deeply moved.
I wanted to do the same thing with the movie. I wanted it to be entertaining,
involving and constantly surprising. It was a tricky balancing act when putting
it all together. Editor Jill Bilcock is one of Australia's best and she helped make
sure that things didn't get too sad or insane at times."
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse*

 

Moorhouse not only succeeds wildly in transferring the essence of the book to the screen, she actually credits her editor with a soupçon of authorial partnership, something most directors accept as de rigueur but rarely acknowledge publicly. Jill Bilcock's work on this film is breathtaking but not for any flashy "look at me!" cuts but for the overall timing of tone and mood. This is a far trickier aspect to get right than exciting us with a multitude of edits covering a dance sequence, car chase or gunfight. You need to be able to take in the effect of the whole while being able only to experience and alter one part at a time. It's a form of visual and emotional alchemy. As a viewer, you are invited to laugh in scene one, supress a tear in scene two and widen your eyes with surprise in scene three. You never get the impression that any sincerely wrought emotion is being undercut or belittled by the juxtaposition of the funny or absurd in adjoining sequences. That is a balancing act of rare skill. It's only then that you know you are in the hands of a master editor. This is taking nothing away from the director who still has to deliver the moments in performance and craft. I'd like to imagine Moorhouse, Bilcock and producer Sue Maslin each throwing in all their creativity and experience to make this a true rollercoaster of a viewing. I don't care for that cliché but metaphorically only a rollercoaster does what a rollercoaster does so we're stuck with it. You could argue for the yo-yo but it doesn't have the same gravitas. How can we still laugh after such sombre scenes of bereavement and tragedy? Because the movie's emotional beats are played with exquisite timing. Breathing room is conjured up so artfully, we feel the space is included because of its inherent entertainment value. There is not a dud scene or moment in this movie that does not ring true no matter how absurd some of the situations. This is the holy grail of comedy: invisible signposting making the audience believe that the moment is included for its entertainment value; the subsequent pay off when you realise it was a signpost to something more rewarding is sublime. Most movies are usually content with making you cry or laugh. Rarely are both emotions conjured up so often in a single film's running time. I cannot hear the words "She moved," watching this film without a Cheshire cat's best feature perched under my nose. And after an intriguing opening charting the arrival of Myrtle 'Tilly' Dunnage at the small town of Dungatar, how can you not instantly warm to a film playing you a spaghetti western themed cue (it's a small part of an lovely, idiosyncratic score by David Hirschfelder) culminating in our elegantly suited heroine's post cigarette exhale exhortation, "I'm back, you bastards!"

After reading a glowing review and noting the presence of one of our favourite actresses, my partner asked me to get hold of this film, one I had little enthusiasm for simply because of its title. A movie's moniker is nearly always the first time you get an impression of it and even though its name is the original novel's title, as a marketing person I may have changed it to make it more commercial outside of the culture that knows the book so well. Redress anyone? Having said that, the paperback is available, as few are, at our local Waitrose so someone knows something. I mean what expectations are conjured up when you hear the title The Dressmaker? See what I mean? It's like Mike Leigh calling Turner, The Painter, Henri George-Cluzot rechristening The Wages of Fear as Truck Driving and for good measure, Midnight Cowboy as The Adventures of a Former Dishwasher... Titles matter but I was still remiss for dismissing this particular one. So I sat there and within minutes I was absolutely hooked, the flashback opening intercutting the set up of a central mystery that drives a lot of the drama forward. Like Cloud Atlas a few years ago, The Dressmaker was not nominated in a single Oscar category despite its world-class craft. This seems utterly ridiculous to me. Australian cinema often finds itself wedged firmly between two subsets of Oscar category. The Dressmaker is as foreign a film as one made in any other language but the 'problem' is that the characters speak English. So it neither competes with the big boys nor the niche 'foreign' entries.

2016's Oscar ceremony was dominated by race sensitivity, an issue easy to point at and excruciatingly difficult to solve. What performer of colour nominated in 2017 would not be thinking that they were so chosen because of 'positive' discrimination? This belittles both those voting and voted for. The race issue is going to be a bastard/bitch (delete applicable) to 'solve' because acknowledging it is part of the problem in the first place. The other big Hollywood 'problem' is the role of women in the ranks and how woefully under-represented they are. The Dressmaker is a movie directed, co-written and produced by women and the fact the Academy overlooked it completely could give conspiracy-feminists a great chewy mouthful to tuck into. The film and its above the line, mostly female talent have all been acknowledged in various home grown film festivals. It's just a shame the film hasn't broken out as much as it deserves to in the rest of the world. Flagging up the UK Blu-ray release last month is my small way of promoting a unique movie experience. And I'm here to tell you that a second viewing is rewarded almost twice as much as the first. That is how I can usually tell I'm on to something special.

The Dressmaker is more fable that social realism, more revenge wish-fulfilment than gritty drama. But within the world it sets up, it stays true to its own rules and I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to see haute couture used as a weapon instead of the usual metallic suspects. Suffering from a past trauma, Tilly is here to put things right. In the village of her childhood, she suffered from bullying and intimidation and was hounded out of town on the suspicion of her having murdered a local schoolboy. She made an international name for herself in the fashion world and mustering her creative talents, she sets up at her childhood home or more accurately shack with a mother who feigns not remembering who this voluptuous goddess with a mean golf swing actually is. She's here to re-dress the village but the intended effects of each bespoke outfit is not what it seams to be (sorry)... Every villager is briefly sketched out with relish and you never get the impression that any of the supporting actors are short changed in any way. Each one (and most are very well known Australian thespians) is integral to the drama and each had their specific role to play in Tilly's exile and will have a different role in her slow burn script of retribution. To say more about the plot would be to steal piecemeal from the pleasure you will have watching it all develop. I watched it twice in three days and am actually looking forward to another viewing. This soufflé is light but it's also dense with layer upon layer of subplot, subterfuge and subtext. It's practically a Navy.

The characters are rounded, given the spiciest dialogue and have an internal, independent life that doesn't depend on the machinations of plot. Kate Winslet, whose participation was the key to getting the film made, is a sumptuous, sensual seamstress whose womanly figure and choice of garments distracts the boys enough for the home side to steal a football win. Captain of the side is Teddy played by Liam Hemsworth (Chris's brother as if you can't tell). Despite his relative youth up against a more mature Winslet, their romance is never in doubt. He's the one bright and morally mature man in the entire town and adores Winslet from the off. The dependable and consistently authentic Judy Davies walks off with the plum part of 'Mad Molly', Winslet's mother. I have never heard the rude version of 'Go away!' delivered with such venomous vim. She commands attention only the way very special actors can manage. She reminds me of an older, Australian version of the UK's own Sally Hawkins. Both are incapable of insincerity on screen. Davis is a delight from start to finish. Turning in another ladies' clothes fixated character after his literal turns in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is Hugo Weaving as the local police officer. Probably better known these days as Elrond from The Lord of the Rings or Agent Smith in The Matrix, his mellifluous tones and sheer unbridled joy at any full chest arriving from Paris heaving with luxurious fabrics provokes an earnest smile. He's Tilly's only friend from the very start, a slyly guilty well-wisher who bonds with Tilly over haute couture.

A lot of the plaudits have to go to Winslet in a very tricky role. She drives the plot, interacts realistically with friend and foe alike while maintaining the movie's dark whimsy. She has a damn near perfect shadow of an Aussie accent and plays knowingly sexy without overplaying the part but she also knows the power of designer fabric fashioned over appealing curves. She's our reference tent peg, the perceived vengeful harpy, a scourge of duplicitous townsfolk everywhere but we are never left being unsympathetic to her cause. They 'done her wrong' and don't we know it. Almost all the villagers have their own reasons to support Tilly's childhood ostracism and exile; there's the schoolteacher who despised her and scapegoated her after the death of her favourite pupil; there's the reprehensible man who may or may not be her father; there's the apothecary who made an enemy of Tilly's mother (seriously folks, this is something no one wants to do); and there's the mother of the 'murdered' boy, an OCD sufferer being drugged into submission by her controlling husband. There's a moment when the husband checks his wife is out for the count and proceeds to initiate a rape by any other name. I have never been so pleased to welcome the cut away from this horrific activity. On the friends front, there's just Ted and his brother, cursed with a mental disability but ready to tell the truth when it's needed and eventually 'Mad Molly' who takes a while to come around but when she does, it's like having a sarcastic intercontinental ballistic missile in your oh so stylish yet affordable handbag.

Movies like The Dressmaker come around once every few years, under appreciated gems that may almost be one of the better reasons for writing about film in this capacity on this site. The last one from left field that delighted myself and my family was Untouchable (no, not Costner/DeNiro), the French movie about a wealthy quadriplegic who hires an inappropriate helper from the Parisian projects. The Australian seamstress has hit with as much force as François Cluzet and Omar Sy. If ever you're in need of a pick me up double bill, look no further. I can only hope that The Dressmaker can find its audience, a perfect case of a film not given a full chance to connect with the millions out there that will lap up every minute. Be one of those and get this DVD/Blu-ray. You won't be sorry.

sound and vision

The movie, shot on the Red Epic camera system, looks good enough to eat. The entire town of Dungatar has that sand-coloured hue which makes the odd splash of colour stand out all the more. There's not a single piece of damage (how could there be?) and the contrast levels are good though I am (albeit temporarily) viewing the film on a less than expensive TV monitor so cannot be assured that my judgement is sound. Some of the darker scenes tend more to the softer grey (again, this could be the monitor) but this hardly impacts negatively on the enjoyment of the film itself. The colours are rendered fabulously (that's the only word) and some of the dresses punch out of the screen.

The disc's DTS-HD Master Audio, 5.1 Surround is a very specific delight and it's clear a lot of work has gone into it. Accents notwithstanding, the dialogue is clear, the effects punchy and the music mix hugely pleasing. The surround effects are never overstated. The best thing I can say about the mix after some thought is that it seems to be its own one thing and not some thing made up of thousands of different things. Some mixes give their multi-track origins away. Others, like The Dressmaker's feel so organic and natural that you'd believe everything was recorded at the time and just mixed carefully together on location. It's a terrific piece of work and to use the buzzword, it's immersive in the sense of never reminding you that you are listening to a film mix.

There are optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired.

extra features

Kate Winslet (2' 01")
This is a very short puff piece on Winslet with copious clips from the film and some other interview snippets and behind the scenes glimpses.

Story (3' 36")
This is another very short puff piece on the story with the same copious clips from the film and some other interview snippets and behind the scenes glimpses.

Costume (3' 30")
This is yet another very short puff piece on the costumes with the same (again!) copious clips from the film and some other interview snippets and behind the scenes glimpses.

Are we seeing a pattern here? This is the only disappointment on the Blu-ray. These so-called 'extra features' must have been destined for another outlet because as disc extras, they are not good, full of repetition, too short and barely useful at all in terms of information. It's a shame. A 30-minute straight interview with anyone on the production would be better than this scant nine minutes of puffery, five if you take away the repetitions...

conclusion

The Dressmaker is a hugely entertaining 1950s revenge fable that will wring out your emotional responses from tears of laughter to genuine sadness and back again. All the performances are spot on and the movie's own world is convincingly set up and subtle signposting is paid off handsomely. Watching this movie is like being told by someone in authority that chocolate can qualify as one of your five-a-day. Highly and enthusiastically recommended.

 


*http://www.thefilmpie.com/index.php/blog-2/3648-interview-writer-director-jocelyn-moorhouse-on-the-dressmaker

The Dressmaker

Australia 2015
118 mins
directed by
Jocelyn Moorhouse
produced by
Sue Maslin
written by
P.J. Hogan
Jocelyn Moorhouse
from the novel by
Rosalie Ham
cinematography
Donald McAlpine
editing
Jill Bilcock
music
David Hirschfelder
production design
Roger Ford
starring
Kate Winslet
Liam Hemsworth
Hugo Weaving
Sarah Snook
Judy Davis
Caroline Goodall
Kerry Fox
Rebecca Gibney

disc details
region B
video
2.35:1
sound
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH (optional)
extras
Kate Winslet
Story
Costume
distributor
Entertainment One
release date
14 March 2015
review posted
2 April 2016

See all of Camus's reviews