By James Kenney
Gertrude Pratt: A dress can’t change anything!
Tilly Dunnage: Watch and learn Gertrude, watch and learn!
Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock.
Lone figures arriving in towns and causing great disturbance always make for great drama. Well, they make for drama, anyway, and when a striking Kate Winslet, as Tilly Dunnage, arrives in the dead of night in a small Australian hamlet in the outback, unease spreads through the locals, starting with her mother, who briefly denies having a child(!). Also wary are the resident women who find her a threat both existential (her return dredges up a tragic past event) and physical (dressed in eye-catching haute couture, Winslet contrasts wildly with the dust-covered, pinch-faced locals).
Tilly arrives and takes up position on a hill overlooking the town center, hitting golf balls at residences and businesses populated by those she finds disagreeable. She then sets a bonfire in her front yard, pulls out her sewing machine and begins sewing furiously on the front porch, arguing with her mother through all of this. As uneasy townspeople gather at a distance to watch, I found it a funny, knowing contrast to Clint Eastwood’s setting up with a drink and his gun, sleepily chatting with the barkeep, in the empty motel in the middle of town in Fistful of Dollars.
Veteran Australian Director Jocelyn Moorehouse observes the comic similarities too, throwing in some echoing Spaghetti-western harmonica in a few initial moments. However, she wisely and confidently soon lets the Dressmaker’s tempestuous material fend for itself. Donald McAlpine’s widescreen image is often busy with memorable, unconventional business, and the film’s realization of this twisted small town landscape reminded me of Robert Altman’s underrated Popeye and his magnificent achievement of the town of (anything but) Sweethaven.
The Dressmaker qualifies as a quirky Down-Under comedy along the lines of the excellent recent Hunt for the Wilderpeople, as Winslet, who worked in Paris as a dressmaker in her absence, starts transforming the women of the town, and Liam Hemsworth, as the town hunk, takes an interest in her. However, the film never lets us get relaxed, as tragic, miserable and downright Shakespearean things keep occurring; the audience is never quite able to sit back and safely loosen up.
A piquant, chance-taking script by Moorehouse and P.J. Hogan, based on a novel by Rosalie Ham, is the film’s strong point, although indefatigable leads Winslet and Judy Davis as her disturbed mom can’t be faulted, and Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, James Mackay, Caroline Goodall and Hemsworth all do top-level duty in support.
The Dressmaker briefly escaped into theaters a few years ago, about a year after its release in the rest of the world (it was a huge success in Australia), but was released on Blu Ray and DVD, and has been a featured Amazon Prime 4K UHD release. Hopefully it gets the attention it deserves on these shores. Critics were peculiarly cold to this unconventional film, finding it “tonally erratic,” to quote one. I find it genuinely cool and quirky, a film more intuitive than spelled-out, using its fish-out-of-water-comedy frame to tell an agreeably loose tall tale, with a strong female lead. It’s slyly funny, but also cool and lofty; I’ll call it a “tormented comedy” and leave you to decide if the film’s gamine juiciness is your cup of tea; I find it a modern minor classic. There’s no rush, as the quirky, imprudent Dressmaker should be tripped over, and the less you know about it, the more enjoyable the startled fall will be.