AUSTRALIAN TALE STITCHES TOGETHER OFFBEAT HUMOR AND QUIRKY COMEUPPANCE
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: R; Grade: B+
Is there a more classic, dare I say “iconic,” figure in film today than Kate Winslet? If you need proof, look no further than the opening scene of “The Dressmaker.” Winslet, as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, steps into view, exiting a train at a rundown station, seemingly in the middle of nowhere—her hometown, is quite literally, not much of a place at all. She plants a clean high-heeled shoe like a flag marking the territory, and when we finally get a full view of her, we know exactly who and what she is.
The grown-up version of the outcast chased away, the princess of a dark fairy tale returning from exile. The star reborn. Winslet is all of these things, but she is so much more. She is the re-incarnation of Old Hollywood (channeling the lusty spirit of Barbara Stanwyck) in a way that no other actress of her generation is, or could be. She has the style…and the substance to match.
And Jocelyn Moorhouse, taking the helm here almost 20 years after her last effort (1997’s “A Thousand Acres”) wisely mines period sensibilities, adapting a Rosalie Ham bestseller set in a rural 1950s Australian community, far removed from polite society, allowing Dunnage to become that otherworldly breath of style and intrigue. She’s back, it seems, to take care of her ill and nearly destitute mother (Judy Davis), but we soon learn that she’s also eager to discover the truth about the incident that led to her exile 25 years prior.
Secrets rarely exist in small towns, although it becomes obvious in this P.J. Hogan script that misconceptions and money obscure and refract facts into something bordering on legend. Dunnage, re-emerging with glamor and her sewing machine as her unbreakable sword and shield, attacks the flimsy armor of the townsfolk, beginning with her own mother. It is evident from the start that Dunnage wants more than to merely win people over or to simply expose the truth and clear her reputation. She wants sweet and inevitably nasty revenge.
To achieve that goal, the character needs every ounce of the substance Winslet generates with such ease. Dunnage initially disarms everyone she encounters with beauty and 25 years of experience living in a world none of these people can even dream of. There is a cheeky skewering wit to how Dunnage dismantles everyone who still sees her as the lost wild child of old, but Winslet sticks the knife in and expertly twists the blade with dramatic flair that never devolves into soap melodrama. We see the wounded soul behind her carefully constructed façade, and cannot help rooting for her to gain her measure of retribution.
And with “The Dressmaker” being set in Australia, there is a willingness to embrace a darker tone. The Hollywood version of this tale would have retreated to a broad playfulness, highlighting a cultural embarrassment that pops up when things get seriously dangerous. We resort to silly caper moves—see the zany hijinks of last week’s “Masterminds”—which tends to strand otherwise competent performers in jokes eager to make us laugh rather than expose what might make us uncomfortable.
Winslet excels here because she bravely stands her ground in those precarious moments, neither laughing nor crying. She lays bare deeper, rawer emotions that unsettle the narrative and the audience, which is what Stanwyck and others used to do back in the day.
Taking all of this a step further, “The Dressmaker” refuses to amble along toward a happy ending. Revenge is ugly business that leaves irreparable scars that never completely heal. There is no way or reason for Dunnage to be able to stroll off into the sunset in the final reel. That may be the ultimate selling point for both the film and Winslet’s performance. “The Dressmaker” dresses up the ugliness of the human heart in the fine form of a never better Kate Winslet.