Rosalie Ham was born in Jerilderie, NSW. Haven’t heard of it? Me neither. Yes, Rosalie Ham knows about small town Australian living, and it isn’t pretty. Her novel The Dressmaker has been made into a film that has just been released in cinemas across Australia starring the insatiable force, Kate Winslet, the heart-throb Liam Hemsworth, the show-stealing Judy Davis and our beloved Hugo Weaving, reprising a variation of his fantastic role in Pricilla Queen of the Desert.
Here we have a remarkable film, a film about an Australian Woman, based on a book written by an Australian woman, directed by an Australian woman. Kate Winslet does such a fantastic job of being an Australian with a twinge of accents picked up on her adventures in Europe that we may as well adopt her. In fact all the actors are perfect, especially Judy Davis who out of every character in the film undergoes the most development. This is a highly polished film, one without cultural twinge, dealing with real issues, it is truly Australian but also something that anyone can relate to.
Rather like an outback film noir, our beautifully dressed hero, Tilly Dunnage, arrives in the dead of the night, wielding her secret weapon, a Singer sewing machine, wearing blood red lipstick and constantly smoking through her elegant cigarette holder. She has come home to find out if she is a murderer. But is that really why she has returned? Or for revenge, a boy? Or something else? After retrieving her mother from under a mountain of bedclothes, she sets about letting it be known that she is back and not afraid to shake the dust out of the tired town of Dungatar. And she does so through the transformative power of fashion.
In a film partly about the power of fashion to transform the way we look and are perceived by others, it treads a fine line highlighting that this superficial change does not necessarily trigger an internal one. Those who change the most are those who avoid changing their clothes the longest, especially Judy Davis’s character, Tilly’s mother ‘Mad’ Molly Dunnage. This is not your average chick flick where an inwardly beautiful woman is made outwardly beautiful by a makeover. In fact the beautiful clothes seem instead to highlight the superficiality of the people, once hidden underneath their drab outfits and lack of attention to their personal grooming. Nevertheless they are highly superficial in their judgement of people, whether because they are illegitimate, single mothers, intellectually disabled, enjoy cross-dressing or are in any way different.
One would be excused for expecting this film to be like your average chick flick. It has all the hallmarks: the Hollywood actress in the leading role, the heartthrob love interest, a good makeover, great fashion. And yes it delivers on the laughs, the tears, and the romance. But if that’s all you are after you will be disappointed because this film also has a lot on common with the great Australian film Wake in Fright. Both films highlight the terrifying underside of the outwardly community driven, welcoming and quaint Australian outback town. Here community driven means everyone works together to exclude anyone who is different. If you can’t assimilate you are no longer welcome, and if you are secretly different you will do almost anything to hide your secrets. Quaint means the people are backwards and isolated, partly by choice. And like Wake in Fright, The Dressmaker ends in violence.
Yet in the end the film seems positive, despite the carnage. Here is a film about women helping other women, there are no damsels in distress waiting to be rescued by a hero on a white horse. Yes we do have our hunky hero, but he cannot save our heroine, she must save herself. How refreshing that is. And at the centre of this is a lovely portrayal of the love between a mother and daughter where the relationship and care goes both directions and each is saved by the other.
I feel like this film would appeal to almost anyone, it has so many elements, so many surprises. You will find yourself laughing out loud with the rest of the audience, you will relate to the characters, or know someone just like them. If you are Australian you will relate to the landscape and the atmosphere, if you aren’t then this is a great way to get an insight into small town Australian living. I went into the cinema not really knowing what to expect or whether I would enjoy it, but came out delighted, impressed, and quite frankly proud to be an Australian woman.
In Australian Cinemas Now