One of my best and brightest cinematic memories took place about half a decade ago, maybe even more, when I watched a certain film with my grandmother. That film was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It was an outrageous, hilariously irreverent film that even my ultra-conservative Catholic grandmother adored. There was something about that film that just worked – I figured it to be the idea of the glamour and dazzling personalities of a trio of drag queens, set against the rough-and-tough Australian outback, that was just such a perfect combination. As someone that adores Australian cinema, I have always searched for that magic again, and while Australia has produced some truly tremendous films (mostly in the underrated and underseen Ozploitation genre), nothing ever came close to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Until now, when the wonderful spiritual sequel to that great film came out, The Dressmaker. While not related to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in the slightest, it is exactly what I was searching for – a fantastic and sweet little comedy that shows a strange juxtaposition that just seems to work. Added to that, a fantastic cast and so many brilliant aspects, The Dressmaker was such a pleasant surprise.
Like many great films, The Dressmaker doesn’t set up its premise with lengthy backstories or flashbacks. There are a few very ambiguous and subtle flashbacks throughout, but instead of providing context, they are just additional pieces to the puzzle. Essentially, this film begins with Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage arriving back home in rural Australia in the outback town of Dungatar in the middle of the night to the immortal lines “I’m back, you bastards” – and through the following two hours, we discover exactly why Tilly left in the first place, and why she even came back to the town she clearly has nothing but disdain for. Turns out, Tilly was exiled out of the town in 1926 after supposedly killing a local boy. She professes her innocence – but she was the only other person there, and the gang mentality of the town paints her as the truly despicable murderess they believe her to be – and Tilly discovers that life is pretty difficult when you return home, and it isn’t made better by the fact that everyone thinks you’ve murdered someone, even your own mother (Judy Davis). But it just so happens that not everyone sees the bad in Tilly, and she soon finds a considerable fan-base around the town, mostly because of her exquisite dressmaking abilities that captivate the town, and for a brief moment, they forget that she is the exact person they reviled and treated as some form of pariah, because of an alleged murder she committed. She even manages to find love in the local sports star Teddy (Liam Hemsworth).
Kate Winslet is a force of nature. I am not sure of any actress that is so captivating and so deeply moving, regardless of the movies she is in. As an actress, Winslet has given so many great performances, and has strangely never peaked – she doesn’t have that one definitive performance that is her ultimate greatest – and everyone has their own favorite. I adore Winslet the most when she is in a fun movie – because she has an irresistible quality that true movie stars have, in the way that she is just so likable. The Dressmaker sees Winslet having an absolute blast, and this is the rare role that requires an actress to both be able to have fun, but also to work hard towards creating a likable character – keep in mind, the film makes us believe that she is a murderer, who returns to her town to get revenge, which is true (to an extent) – and Winslet does a fantastic job in making Tilly an utterly wonderful and endearing character, while still retaining a bit of mysterious edge that makes her character so captivating. Winslet may not give her very best performance here, but she certainly seems to be having a blast, and if anything, this just proves that she is versatile and willing to take on any challenge.
The cast as a whole is pretty strong, but I have to point out that Judy Davis was an absolute revelation – her performance as “Mad” Molly Dunnage is definitely one for the ages – endlessly funny and deeply moving, Davis makes an otherwise disposable character into something truly special. Davis is a very underrated actress, and her performance here is one that she absolutely killed. Her chemistry with Winslet is wonderful, and she truly does the very best with the character. I was absolutely delighted with Davis’ wonderful performance, and honestly wish Hollywood would give her more offers, because she is a great talent that has sadly gone far too unrecognized. Hugo Weaving also has a special place in my heart, mainly because of his brilliant performance in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Serving as the only real connective feature between the two, he once again pulls off a great performance, and this time adopting the persona of the straight-laced and timid local police officer, Sergeant Farrat, Weaving once again brings out his true drag queen, playing the policeman as a closeted cross-dresser who uses the return of Tilly to explore his own love of couture and designer clothing. Weaving may not get the same juicy material that Winslet and Davis do (and I really wish they didn’t give so much time to Liam Hemsworth, who was merely serviceable), but he also uses the character to the absolute extreme and does a fantastic job.
I do have a few problems with this film – first of all, the casting was absolutely off-the-wall. I appreciate the talented cast, but I am not sure the right amount of time was put into casting well – for example, Winslet and Liam Hemsworth are love interests, and also are supposed to be the same age – yet Winslet is a decade and a half older than Hemsworth. This isn’t a problem (and we all know Hollywood has a preoccupation with pairing middle-aged movie stars with much younger love interests) – but the constant reference to their shared childhood really took me out of it, considering they are at least a generation apart in real life. The other problem I have is the narratives of some of the characters were highly questionable – the character of Gertrude, played by Sarah Snook, was an interesting one, but she completely changed halfway through – and I understand going from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan is not a bad narrative point, her character completely changed for absolutely no reason, and it felt like it was a completely different character. These are small complaints for an otherwise wonderful and captivating film.
Not only is The Dressmaker an absolute riot of a film in terms of story and acting, it is also something extraordinary to look at – the production design was absolutely wonderful, and the recreation of a traditional Australian outback town was stunning. The costume design was exquisite (and I didn’t expect anything less from a film called The Dressmaker), and overall, the entire film was just made gorgeously. The score was also absolutely astounding. Even if this film didn’t feature wonderful performances, it would still be a delightful treat, mainly because of how beautifully it was made.
Overall, The Dressmaker is a remarkable film. It is hilarious and sweet, and it is surely entertaining. It is made with such precision, and the performances are absolutely wonderful. This is the kind of film that sadly flies too far under the radar, but it is one that more people discover rather than hearing about, and there is nothing better than a great film that you never knew of before. For now, while it is still fresh in our minds, I implore everyone to seek it out, but the best part is that in generations to come, people will discover this fun and audacious revenge comedy and believe themselves to be part of an elite group that know if its existence – and in a warped way, that is wonderful.