Skip to main content

She’s back! The murderess is back!

The Dressmaker
(2015)

(SPOILERS) A gleefully warped, jet black comedy from Jocelyn Moorhouse, one that, for the most part, manages to juggle its potentially jarring shifts in tone and plot. The Dressmaker is a revenge drama, a murder mystery, a comedy of small town jealousies and a morality play concerning dark secrets, in which Kate Winslet’s pariah arrives home and, like a vindictive version of Juliette Binoche in Chocolat, transforms lives through her special gift of seamstressing. But Moorhouse’s approach is closer to Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs, such that the outback settlement of Dungatar is populated by larger-than-life grotesques and crazies, and is fuelled by a vibrant stylistic approach that veers to the cartoonish.


In 1951, Myrtle Dunnage (Winslet) returns to the town she left a quarter of a century earlier, announcing “I’m back, you bastards”. She has revenge on her mind, and questions she needs answered (“Am I a murderer?”) Myrtle immediately causes a stir, rousing her caustic mother Molly (Judy Davis) from her bed and showing up at a football game in a provocative red number. She proceeds to engineer startling couturial changes on the townsfolk, in particular the fortunes of Gertrude (Sarah Snook), who attracts the attention of hot catch William (James Mackay), much to the disgust of his rich mother (Caroline Goodall). Myrtle has both a staunch defender, the cross-dressing police sergeant (Hugo Weaving) who sent her away all those years before, and a captivated admirer, rugged Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), and the picture unfolds in an unhurried and ramshackle fashion, frequently diverting into character cul-de-sacs when it isn’t picking up the threads of the did she/ didn’t she murder plot.


Indeed, at two hours, The Dressmaker is possibly a little on the over-extended side. Since this is a spoiler review, I’ll note that I assumed something of note had to happen in the last half hour, because by the 90-minute mark we had reached a “happily ever after” point with Teddy that seemed entirely out-of-sorts with the film’s deliciously unsentimental premise. So, while some may be distressed at Teddy’s demise in silo of sorghum, I felt it entirely appropriate. Indeed, the succession of deaths that follow run the gamut of tragic (Molly), hilarious (Barry Otto’s no good, wife-beating, paedophile hunchback local chemist) and appropriately gruesome (Shane Bourne’s malignant rapist), but all are in sync with a picture that has unfurled a broad, quirky canvas; it’s only the romance, as well-played as it is, that doesn’t feel built to last.


I admired Moorhouse’s Proof, but she rather lost me when she departed for America, so it’s encouraging to see her back on her own turf, delivering something so distinctive (Moorhouse adapted Rosalie Ham’s novel with her husband PJ Hogan). Of course, the eccentricity inevitably suggests other films and filmmakers. I was particularly impressed with how reliant (in a good way) the picture is on its score, a wonderful piece from David Hirschfelder, to carry the shifts in tone; playful (he gets on board with the western element, Winslet as the gunslinger returning to town to right wrongs), emotive, with just the right kind of complementary verve (such that when the picture occasionally seems unsure of its path, Hirschfelder is there to guide it). Coming across like Michael Nyman by way of Carter Burwell (there’s definitely a Coen Brothers feel to the pitch black humour), but as if applied to a Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet, it’s one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard recently.


Moorhouse has also assembled a quite superlative cast. Winslet and Davis are at the centre, exhibiting marvellous chemistry as the feuding/loving mother and daughter, the latter taking full advantage of her frequently hilarious, outrageous/outspoken dialogue to steal the show. Weaving’s sensitive sergeant is adorable, while Snook who can do no wrong in anything, essaying a transformation from dowdy to gorgeous while transitioning from vaguely sympathetic to callous and horrid and remaining recognisably the same character throughout.


Goodall is also great, and Kerry Fox, in a far cry from Shallow Grave, is the despicable, Machiavellian school mistress.  Moorhouse even elicits a memorable performance from Liam Hemsworth, something I scarcely thought possible. Maybe it’s because he’s using his own accent, or simply because his Hollywood roles are so indifferent, but this is the first time he’s made any kind of impression in anything I’ve seen. It’s difficult not to note the age gap between Winslet and Hemsworth/Snook, since they’re intended to be of the same generation, but it’s never something that feels like a deal breaker.


Some of the plot twists (the developmentally disabled brother of Teddy is able to provide the crucial evidence in the murder) seem rather derivative, and there are times The Dressmaker becomes a bit too shaggy dog for its own good, but the general milieu and tone are so inviting that it’s hard to resist. And I admire that the picture sticks to its guns, in terms of attitude, not copping out; next to no one in Dungatar is virtuous or repentant (save Weaving, who must atone for past sins against Myrtle), and Moorhouse is unstinting on the retribution in a way that proves both funny and fitting. A very pleasant surprise, and hopefully The Dressmaker’s director won’t take another 18 years to make her fifth feature.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.