Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) might not be quite as bloodthirsty as the Psalmist, but when she gets off the bus on a dark night, her words certainly reveal her intent. “I’m back, you bastards,” she declares as she picks up her Singer sewing machine. On hand to observe her is the only cop in the small Australian hamlet of Dungatar, Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who picks up her two suitcases and transports her up the hill to the home of her mother Mad Molly (Judy Davis).
At the age of 10 Tilly, then known as Myrtle, had been hustled out of town after allegedly killing a classmate named Stewart Pettyman. Tilly herself cannot recall the moment of death because of trauma, but even her mother Molly (Judy Davis), believes she had done it. After all, the mean-spirited school teacher Beulah Harridiene (Kerry Fox) stated that she saw the murder. It has been 20 years since the tragedy, years in which Tilly had studied dressmaking in Paris where she had achieved considerable success. As she enters her mother’s rundown house, it appears to her that the dump has not been cleaned since she left. Dirt and debris is scattered everywhere. The slovenly Molly grudgingly accepts her return but does little to help her daughter in the lengthy clean-up.
The house sits atop the hill overlooking the town. A running joke is Tilly and others disdainfully hitting golf balls at the various buildings, the loud bang drawing the occupant of the targeted house out to investigate. These include the religiously fanatical town chemist (Barry Otto); the dead boy’s father, Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) who is the councilor of Dungatar; and of course, the teacher, now even more of an old hag.
There is one person glad to see the exile back, soccer star Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), instantly drawn by her beauty and sophistication. Upon their reunion, he says, “I reckon you came home for one of 2 things, revenge or… me…” Add Sgt. Farrat (Hugo Weaving), though he is not romantically interested. A secret cross-dresser, he loves the stylish clothes she designs and their colorful fabrics. The hang-dog-looking Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook), a store clerk soon joins her company of supporters after Tilly gives her a beauty make-over and dresses her in a gorgeous gown. The once taken for granted girl experiences a Cinderella moment when she shows up at the local dance and all eyes are fixed upon her. The dress shop that Tilly sets up in her mom’s house is soon thronged with women vying for one of her creations.
Tilly keeps busy making dresses designed to order and, during off hours, spending time with Teddy. She also continues her quest to find out what happened long ago when Stewart attacked her. She longs to clear her name. She also must contend with a rival dressmaker, invited in by her enemies. The rival even lures away the about to be married Gertrude, designing a wedding dress for her so awful—well, the results of this provide one of the more amusing incidents in the film. There is also a sudden twist or two in the plot that changes the mood from light to dark. What Tilly discovers about that long-ago day, and what she does in retaliation might or might not be satisfying.
I question whether she emerges at the end of the film a better person, even though she might feel the same way as the Psalmist. I do believe she is now a person you would not want to cross, certainly no shrinking violet waiting for rescue from her troubles. However, there is no question concerning the excellence of the cast. Kate Winslet as the strong-willed woman smarter than anyone else in town acts at her usual top level. Judy Davis must have had a good time playing the bedraggled Mad Molly, and Hugo Weaving almost steals the show as the cross-dressing cop. Although not ennobling entertainment, The Dressmaker, is never dull!
This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.