Saturday, October 15, 2016
Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA September 26, 2016 7:15PM
"The Dressmaker", the emotionally erratic film by Jocelyn Moorhouse, features Kate Winslet as a troubled fashionista who returns to her remote, Australian outback town years after being driven out as a young girl for a terrible crime she was accused of committing. What makes this even more complicated is that while she was present, the trauma from the event has caused her not to remember exactly what happened. While this 1950's set dark comedy, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham, is supposed to elicit laughs from the oddball antics from the inhabitants of the town of Dungatar, the awkward shift from twisted humor to some horrific and disturbing tragedies throws the film out of whack, leaving viewers far more dispirited than amused.
After Myrtle Dunnage (Winslet), who now goes by the name of "Tilly", arrives in town by bus in the middle of the night, she lights a cigarette and utters to herself, "I’m back, you bastards". With the addition of her over-the-top, grand dame costume she created, you might imagine we were heading in to the high-camp of "Dynasty" era Joan Collins. Unfortunately the soap opera theatrics never materializes which would have added some much needed zing to the grim drama and strained comedy. The first person to greet Tilly is the town's police sergeant, Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving), a closet case who greatly admires her stylish flair.
When finally reaching her childhood home, she's shocked to find the place in a filthy and dilapidated condition while her mother, Molly (Judy Davis) is in even worse shape. Molly seems to be suffering from some form of dementia and doesn't even recognize her own daughter.
Word spreads fast of Tilly's return with the news particularly distressing to town Councilman Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) and his fragile wife, Marigold (Alison Whyte) whose son, Stewart was killed, allegedly by the hands of a young Myrtle.
During a local football game, Tilly arrives wearing a flashy, fire-red evening dress, distracting the players and scandalizing the town. One of the players on the Dungatar team, Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) asks Tilly if she could change in to something less disruptive. She agrees, returning in a black yet still quite form-fitting dress. After the teams switch sides on the field, the distraction of the titillating Tilly helps Dungatar win the game.
A former classmate, Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook), reveals she really loves Tilly's haute couture gowns, Since becoming quite skilled with a sewing machine while training in Paris with a master dressmaker, Tilly offers to make one for her to wear at the football victory dance. Mousy and plain, Gertrude has a crush on the handsome and wealthy William Beaumont (James Mackay) who doesn't even know she's alive. Even if he did notice her, his snobbish mother (Caroline Goodall) would never allow her precious son to become involved with the daughter of the owners of the general store.
At the dance, Gertrude is absolutely stunning in Tilly's creation, which draws out a new found confidence that makes her wildly alluring to the men in the room. Particularly to the Beaumont boy, much to his mother's horror. Tilly receives some attention herself from the footballer, Teddy and while she finds him quite appealing, her focus is on trying to solve what really happened to Stewart Pettyman and possibly clearing her name.
The discovery that several of the adults in town either knew more but remained silent or gave misinformation regarding what happened on that fateful day leads Tilly to disbelief, then anger to finally enacting the ultimate revenge. It's understandable why Ms Winslet would be attracted to this role. The Oscar-winner is given the opportunity to emote on a grand scale, allowing her to be a drama queen, a sexpot, a damsel-in-distress, a comedian and the love interest all in one film. Plus she gets to strut around in high fashion with the help of costume designers Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson but her effective performance is not enough to save this uneven film.
Ms Moorhouse showed great promise with her debut, "Proof" which gave early film roles to Russell Crowe and Mr. Weaving and won five Australian Film Institute Awards including Best Film in 1991. Then Hollywood came calling and, like their homegrown female talent, didn't know what to do with her or show much faith. The two films Moorhouse did manage to make, "How to Make an American Quilt" in 1995 and "A Thousand Acres" in 1997 featured much needed stories focused on women. They were met with critical indifference and box-office disappointment though the performances by some of the actors featured like Winona Ryder, Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer were highly praised. Although Moorhouse would produce a couple of films for her husband, P.J. Hogan, it would be a disgraceful nineteen years before she would get another opportunity to work behind the camera with "The Dressmaker".
I must admit I had mixed feelings about her previous work and unfortunately "The Dressmaker" suffers from some of the same problems that plagued her American films. While Moorhouse has a great gift for inspiring amazing work from her performers and a detailed eye for striking images, she has difficulty shaping a focused narrative and relying too heavily on melodrama. The overwrought script, co-written by Moorhouse and Hogan, who memorably brought us "Muriel's Wedding" one of the first films to perfectly showcase Australia's wacky sense of heartfelt humor, is ill-defined, jumbling together various themes and genres that leaves a feeling of schizophrenia.
"The Dressmaker" seems to be aiming for those campy film noir dramas that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis starred in when their careers where in decline with their far-fetched plots and exaggerated characters. But there is a cruel and unpleasant undercurrent here, perhaps unintentional, that drains all of the potential fun out of the film,