Film review: The Dressmaker

Revenge, mother-daughter bonds and the transformative power of clothes are the threads stitched deftly throughout Jocelyn Moorhouse's quirky Australian comedy drama, which induces tears as much as giggles.
The Dressmaker stars Liam Hemsworth and Kate WinsletThe Dressmaker stars Liam Hemsworth and Kate Winslet
The Dressmaker stars Liam Hemsworth and Kate Winslet

At its heart is the beautifully shifting relationship between the titular dressmaker, Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet), and her senile single mother, Molly (Judy Davis) - who both, in turn, need mothering.

Based on the bestseller by Rosalie Ham, who also adapted it for the screen, The Dressmaker is set in the 1950s in the small town of Dungatar and opens with a perfectly coiffed Winslet, as Tilly, arriving with her Singer sewing machine.

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She languorously lights a cigarette before announcing, menacingly, "I'm back you b******s!"

Through eerie black and white flashbacks, which are a little TV movie-esque, we learn that Tilly was sent away as a child for her involvement in the death of a schoolboy.

Having found her metier as a seamstress and trained with the likes of Balenciaga in Paris, she's returned to Dungatar for her elderly mother Molly and to uncover who's to blame for what happened to her as a child.

Tilly finds her mother bed-ridden in a filthy house, not recognising her own daughter, and sets about cleansing and nursing her back to health - against her wishes.

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Tea chests of exotic fabrics arriving from Paris soon pique the interest of Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) who has a secret - like almost everyone else in the town.

Tilly makes her presence known - and advertises her skills - by posing in two stunning dresses pitch-side at a local football match.

The ladies of the town gradually arrive at her door, asking her to dress them, with remarkable results.

Tilly also captures the attention of footballer Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), whose family has been keeping an eye on old 'Mad Molly' in the daughter's absence.

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She initially resists his overtures, fearing her past has cursed her.

Gradually Tilly's new customers, Sergeant Farrat and Teddy help the outcast to piece together what really happened when she was younger, and the town's case against her begins to unravel.

However, Tilly's beautiful creations cannot mask the real ugliness of the locals' narrow minds.

Weaving delivers a stand-out performance as the by-turns flamboyant and deadly serious policeman, who acts as a buffer between Tilly and the unforgiving townsfolk.

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Winslet is never overly challenged by the demands of her role, but she plays Tilly's softer, more vulnerable side extremely well.

It's refreshing to see Hemsworth, some 15 years younger than Winslet, playing the love interest, when it's so often the other way round.

Ultimately the film is a frippery - with so many caricatures among its chorus of disapproving townsfolk and no clear message about love and loss, bullying or ageing.

(Kate Whiting)