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The Dressmaker Movie Review

The Dressmaker (2016) movie poster The Dressmaker

US Theatrical Release: September 23, 2016 (Australia: October 29, 2015) / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse / Writers: Rosalie Ham (novel); Jocelyn Moorhouse, P.J. Hogan (screenplay)

Cast: Kate Winslet (Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage), Judy Davis (Molly Dunnage), Liam Hemsworth (Teddy McSwiney), Hugo Weaving (Sergeant Farrat), Julia Blake (Irma Almanac), Shane Bourne (Evan Pettyman), Kerry Fox (Beulah Harridene), Gibney (Muriel Pratt), Caroline Goodall (Elsbeth Beaumont), Gyton Grantley (Barney McSwiney), Tracey Harvey (Lois Pickett), Sacha Horler (Una Pleasance), Shane Jacobson (Alvin Pratt), Genevieve Lemon (Mae McSwiney), James Mackay (William Beaumont), Hayley Magnus (Prudence Haridene), Simon Maiden (Photographer), Terry Norris (Septimus), Barry Otto (Mr. Percival Almanac), Rory Potter (Stewart Pettyman), Sarah Snook (Gertrude "Trudy" Pratt), Alison Whyte (Marigold Pettyman), Darcey Wilson (Young Tilly), Mark Leonard Winter (Reginald Blood), Amanda Woodhams (Nancy Pickett)


In the 19 years since Titanic cemented her as a movie star, Kate Winslet has worked primarily in America,
with the occasional return to her native England. Now, she has journeyed to Australia to sink her teeth into the juicy titular role of The Dressmaker, a dramedy adapted from Rosalie Ham's 2000 novel of the same name.

Winslet plays Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage, who in the early 1950s returns to Dungatar, her small hometown in the Australian outback, dredging up some old demons and enemies in the process. Myrtle is back to take care of her single mother, "Mad" Molly (Judy Davis), who has been living in absolute filth as her mind falls apart. Molly claims not to recognize her daughter, which may not be fully true, but both mother and daughter actually struggle to recall the circumstances of an incident from Tilly's childhood. As a girl, Tilly was blamed for the death of a classmate and peer, but though creating deep wounds and enduring bitterness within the community, the episode remains shrouded in fog to Tilly and others.

In "The Dressmaker", Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage (Kate Winslet) turns heads at a rugby match in a strapless black dress.

One thing that is completely free from haze: Tilly's dressmaking abilities. She literally turns heads with her outfits inspired by world famous designers. She also transforms the town's ugly duckling Gertrude (Sarah Snook) into a knockout whom effortlessly snags a handsome bachelor with the confidence and beauty of her custom-tailored dress. Others soon come to Molly's house asking for Tilly to work her magic for their bodies and she obliges. She even counts among her admirers pencil-mustachioed police Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who takes pleasure in seeing, touching, and trying on her more flamboyant offerings.

Calling herself cursed, Tilly deflects the romantic advances made by smitten rugby hunk Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth). She also tries to clear up the old mystery that has haunted her all her life and made her be sent away: that boy's puzzling death.

Adapted by director Jocelyn Moorhouse (1991's Proof, How to Make an American Quilt) and P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding, 2003's Peter Pan), The Dressmaker is a character study for those who don't appreciate subtlety. It develops an assortment of Dungatar residents, from the nasty, hunchbacked doctor to the man who cheats on his wife when he isn't knocking her out with an elixir (and forcing himself into her unconscious body) to the kind old lady whose pain is relieved by Molly's pot brownies.

Ugly duckling Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) becomes a beautiful swan in a dress tailor-made for her by "The Dressmaker."

Laughs were plentiful from the older, predominantly female crowd at my screening. I didn't share a single one of them. It's not that the storytelling is without value, it's just that the value
gets buried in the broad comedy that is woven in between some equally graceless bits of melodrama and tragicomic comeuppances. We're intended to sympathize with Tilly and share her disdain for virtually everyone else in town whom she drives golf balls at from atop her hill. But the movie never gets us to that point, even with an actress as seasoned and talented as Winslet imbuing the protagonist role with everything it calls for.

The photography is nice. The scenery is nice. The costumes are almost attention-grabbing enough to keep this in the running for the tailor-made technical Oscar. But the movie as a whole falls short without any degree of uncertainty. I suspect the lion's share of the blame must lay with Ham's source text, which is what tries to run us through this array of emotions in a contrived fashion that has us ready for the film to end a half-hour before it actually does.

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Reviewed September 30, 2016.

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