Armed with her sewing machine

  • by David Lamble
  • Wednesday September 21, 2016
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Kate Winslet as Tilly in director Jocelyn Moorhouse's <i>The Dressmaker</i>.
Kate Winslet as Tilly in director Jocelyn Moorhouse's The Dressmaker.

The new Australian film The Dressmaker pivots wildly between slapstick comedy and revenge-orientated tragedy. This includes the sometimes wacky relations between the sexes, particularly as they play out in a still raw, frontier society.

The film's present tense is 1951, when a regally glamorous adult woman, Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage, appears in a small nasty town, Dungatar, a frontier village from which she was rudely expelled many years before. The opening scene begins on an aerial shot of an intercity bus speeding across an arid plain. It's a scene that could have come from Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 agrarian thriller North by Northwest.

We soon discover that Tilly, in a commanding, Oscar-worthy turn from Kate Winslet, is out for revenge. Her weapons are a sewing machine and a hard-won knowledge of high fashion, particularly of haute couture, acquired from her travels in sophisticated European capitals.

Under the direction of Jocelyn Moorhouse, adapted by Rosalie Ham from her novel, the film has a top-flight Aussie cast including the hunky Liam Hemsworth, the sly Hugo Weaving (vividly cast in the cross-dressing Aussie classic Priscilla Queen of the Desert), and most deliciously, Judy Davis, a veteran of the Australian 70s New Wave (Gillian Armstrong's pioneering feminist fable My Brilliant Career ).

The townsfolk are as happy to see Tilly as the residents of another tar-pit town were to see Spencer Tracy's one-armed vet in Bad Day at Black Rock. In fact, a good guide to decoding The Dressmaker is to bear in mind its resemblances to modern American frontier classics, with the warning that Australians operate from their own much darker frontier origin myth.

One thing that will rile film buffs who like their comedy and drama kept in separate buckets is that throughout its two-hour running time, the movie jumps between serious drama and high-spirited camp, farce and slapstick. Plot points that might resonate sadly or comically often veer wildly off-course, such as a romantic sequence where a ruggedly masculine lover falls to his death by suffocation in a silo full of winter grain. Or a flashback scene where a handsome boy who turns out to be a bullying rat is done in. He tries to crush a young girl, she neatly sidesteps his charge, and he slams into a building, breaking his neck. Tilly is accused of killing the boy, who was out to terrorize her.

A manly game of Australian-rules football is interrupted when the mud-splattered players are distracted by Tilly's appearance in one of her own gowns, in vibrant red. There are jolly moments too, with a male official who likes to crossdress. But The Dressmaker contains enough plot twists and mood changes for a whole season of TV drama.

The great Australian actor Jack Thompson taught me the rules of the road in complicated tales like this by citing the one he starred in, Bruce Beresford's 1979 Boer War-era drama Breaker Morant. Unlike Americans, who largely wiped out the aboriginal peoples they found upon their arrival, other British-settled frontiers were often settled with a more live-and-let-live attitude. But sometimes human nature knows no civilized solution to its inter-tribal conflicts, and all residents must try to survive on the brink of terror. Perhaps Tilly's solution, as she leaves a town up in flames, is the best: When in doubt, it pays to outdress the bastards.