The Dressmaker is a deeply weird movie. From its trippy opening credits to its theatrical over-the-top tone it is, from start to finish, nothing like you might expect. It’s hilarious and it’s dark, but above all, it’s totally captivating from beginning to end.
Based on the 2000 Rosalie Ham novel of the same name, The Dressmaker follows Tilly Dunnage (Academy Award winner Kate Winslet; Titanic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), a fashion designer who returns to her microscopic hometown of Dungatar deep in the Australian wilderness after being sent away as a child after committing a murder. After setting up shop in the house of her belligerent, mentally unstable mother Molly (two-time Academy Award nominee Judy Davis Husbands and Wives, A Passage to India), Tilly sets out trying to unearth the secrets of her past; she can’t remember killing anyone and she is determined to find out just what happened to her all those years ago.
The Dressmaker is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s unflinching, unapologetically deadpan sense of humor and an extraordinary selection of performances from a group of actors at the top of their game fuel the film from its opening frame. As the movie goes on and the central mystery falls more and more into focus, the film takes turns that you simply don’t see coming, the result being a movie that never does exactly what you expect it to.
It’s a calculated assault of quirkiness and the movie does everything it can to make sure the audience doesn’t quite make it out for what it really is until the most opportune moment, deep in the third act. Its vicious sense of humor is an immediate asset, with a barrage of fantastic moments hitting their mark consistently and an occasionally surreal sensibility that almost brings to mind Monty Python at times.
This viciousness extends to the film’s dramatic aspects which are deeply affecting and, like the movie’s humor, make the most out of sneak attacks on the audience. The Dressmaker is definitely in the running for the most surprising film I’ve ever seen, for its simple refusal to allow the audience to land on solid, predictable ground.
The cast is absolutely incredible with Winslet anchoring the movie as the outwardly icy but secretly vulnerable Tilly. She plays the part with an undercurrent of passive aggressiveness that adds to both the humor and the tension of every scene she’s in, while Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, The Expendables 2), who I’ve rarely given much credit to as an actor, does superb work here as Tilly’s unfazed neighbor, playing him as mildly amused by Tilly’s sharp personality.
The film’s most valued players, however, are two veteran Australian actors clearly having an absolute ball. Hugo Weaving (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Matrix) seems to be having the time of his life as the tiny town’s one policeman and while his character’s most defining trait may initially seem like a cheap gag, Weaving (with help from the phenomenal script) makes it both poignant and amusing as the film continues. Then there’s Judy Davis, who is simply astonishing. She steals the whole movie out from under everyone’s feet as the off-kilter and extremely sarcastic Molly, moving through dramatic scenes with the same absolute confidence she displays when asked to hurl humorous barbs at characters, like Statler and Waldorf rolled into one blisteringly sardonic Australian pensioner. It’s a top tier performance that ranks as one of the best of the year and it most certainly should come under consideration for awards season.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse (A Thousand Acres, How to Make an American Quilt), who wrote the script along with BAFTA Film Award nominee P. J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, Peter Pan), is equally adept behind the camera as her performers are in front of it. She shoots the film with an epic flair, a sweeping, cinematic quality that captures beauty in the desolate environment of the film and uses it to underline the similarly isolating social landscape that Tilly finds herself in. Moorhouse proves herself an incredible filmmaker here, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.
Australian movies are often quite hit or miss for me. I know that as an Aussie I’m not supposed to say that lest they revoke my membership privileges at the next big meeting, but I have a hard time connecting with the output of my local film industry. The Dressmaker, though? The Dressmaker is incredible, an absolute blast of a movie with an outstanding cast and a fantastic sense of humour. It is, without a doubt, one of the best films of 2015 and it ranks as one of the strangest, most unpredictable films to come out in a very long time.