A sewing machine and murder. The two are rarely mentioned in the same breath. One is associated with images of soft-spoken housewives quietly working away; the other of violence and malicious intentions.
Like our environment, which indeed ranges from “droughts and flooding rains”, there’s a long tradition of juxtaposition in Australian cinema. Just consider our most famous outputs. In Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the sequined glamour of a drag show gets transported (via. a purple bus, natch) to Alice Springs. In Strictly Ballroom, the Latin American and European traditions of ballroom dancing are filtered through tourism ad-ready ocker accents, just like how in Muriel’s Wedding the titular character is the misfit in Porpoise Spit. It comes without surprise then that The Dressmaker, a black comedy in the style of Priscilla and Muriel (P.J. Hogan even co-wrote the screenplay) that found riotous success back in the 90s, finds success in these contradictions.
But director Jocelyn Moorhouse, adapting from the bestseller by Rosalie Ham, finds the film’s tone in not just juxtaposing the glamorous and grotesque, but also the most unlikely of genres. The film opens with a prodigal daughter return ripped straight from the likes of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – a gunslinger rides into town, a place of past battles, in the dead of night, the past on the brain, revenge the intent. She sizes up the setting, illuminated by a lone streetlight and the embers of her cigarette. She utters a phrase, physically to no one, but something that is telling of the film to come: “I’m back, you bastards”.
But the gunslinger of the story, who goes by the name of Tilly (Kate Winslet), doesn’t slip a gun into a holster. Instead, she sets her Singer sewing machine, who’s black exterior shines as much as a freshly cleaned rifle, on the ground with an ominous clank.
Tilly, as it turns out, has indeed returned for revenge, albeit the less bloody kind (or at least initially). Having left her childhood town of Dungatar in disgrace as a ten year old, she’s returned 25 years later to discover the truth about what saw her driven out of town. Tilly, along with her mother Molly (Judy Davis), were the outsiders of the town for reasons unknown to Tilly. Not that one would want to be in their circles anyway. Tilly’s past isn’t the only secrets of the town. Dungatar, as it turns out, has a much darker underbelly. Everyone has something to hide behind their bitchy but squeaky clean facade, including domestic violence and infidelity.
It’s Tilly’s return and her sewing machine that bring these things to light. She’s been to London, Paris, and Milan, working as a highly successful dressmaker at fashion houses like Balenciaga, while the rest of the town has stayed in the past. In a true underdog story tradition, her success is another reason to deride her, until, of course, the townspeople who drove her out need something from her. That something, of course, is her talent with a needle and thread. It’s indeed a war waged through sewing – the first ‘battle’ of sorts is played out on a football field, when she turns up in a stunning black gown, which she reveals to be strapless (gasp! The moment, where you’re expecting for a moment that she’s going to be revealed to be topless, is a fantastic send-up of Winslet’s ‘reputation’ for nudity); and the townspeople, still wearing dirty wartime pastels, look on in horror. That is, until her antics win Dungatar the football match.
And so heads are turned (including one of another outsider, the gentlemanly footballer Teddy, played by Liam Hemsworth), dresses are made, and yes, secrets are uncovered. The plot, which is impossible to summarise in few words (I’ve only covered the first twenty or so minutes above), is one that is constantly toes the line of being as manically energetic as a runaway train and overstuffed, and luckily stays safely in the former. There is a darker and lighter side to the story, switched between in an instant. But Moorhouse, who also penned the screenplay, gives weight to each moment, whether it is of farcical comedy or creating one of the most chilling, emotional sequences of the year (the scene where Tilly finally discovers the truth about the day that saw her get sent away is one of the most harrowing of 2015, shot in the drained colour palette and dutch angles of horror films). Moorhouse doesn’t just draw extensively from westerns to bring life to an unlikely narrative combination, she indeed looks to everything from 1950s romances to slasher films, to even Winslet’s most famous performances. It’s a mad, unlikely combination, one that in the hands of a less confident director would be a tonal mess. But Moorhouse, along with her leads Winslet and Davis, is totally uninhibited. The trio have nothing but love for the protagonists of Tilly and Molly. Davis is able to be the frequent comic relief without being one-dimensional – she’s wisecracks and shattering reflection on a life mostly lived in exile in equal measure – and for Winslet, it’s a comeback of sorts. Boasting an Australian accent that puts most other performers that have attempted one to shame, she evokes her best roles like that in Little Children , Mildred Pierce, and Heavenly Creatures, oscillating between angry, vulnerable, and confident. She’s able to be outlandishly hilarious and then heartbreaking in a single second, a performer that commands every inch of the screen space she occupies with aplomb.
The result is a tribute to a mostly bygone tradition of Australian comedy, one of extreme darkness and eccentricity that stands far away from easy classification. The Dressmaker, indeed a film of glamour and dirt and love and hate, is one of the juxtapositions where our identity lies. If Australian cinema is indeed returning to its misfit roots and The Dressmaker is the beginning, what a great future we have in store.