The haunting Ennio Morricone-esque score with church bells wails as we watch a lonely bus travel down a dusty road cut through dried fields of the Australian outback. The bus stops in a small gathering of buildings, barely enough civilization to call a town. A glamorously curvaceous blonde gets out. She walks in heels to the end of the town where her mother, Mad Molly lives.
This is a settlement with mysteriously little industry. No crops. Just plains of dry plants and dead trees. This is a Western set in 1951. Instead of slinging guns, the shots fired are of fresh Paris-inspired fashions. Once called Myrtle (Kate Winslet), now called Tilly, the woman was sent away after some tragedy she can’t remember. She is “The Dressmaker.”
Based on Rosalie Ham’s novel of the same name, this revenge comedy gem was written and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. The dressmaker is there to prove just how a good dress can change one’s life and to lift a curse that she bears.
Twenty-five years ago, Tilly (Darcey Wilson) was accused of murdering the bullying schoolboy Stewart Pettyman, son of the town councillor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne). Evan then exiled Tilly from this town called Dungatar. She (Kate Winslet at the adult Tilly) has come back to clean up her mother’s squalid home and care for her alcoholic mother. Her arrival excites the police sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving), not just because of the past, but also because of her flare for fashion.
Tilly isn’t the only one returning to Dungatar. The son of the wealthy Elsbeth Beaumont (Caroline Goodall), William Beaumont (James Mackay) has returned from college. The daughter of the town’s general store, Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) is smitten, but she’s also a messy-haired frump.
Both Tilly and William attend the Australian Rules final football game. Another outcast, Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) leads the town’s team, but the young men are distracted by Tilly’s bright red dress which is tight in all the right places. Teddy tells Tilly her dress is distracting. Tilly decides to change her dress and shows Gertrude that a dress can change one’s fate. Her black dress proves so distracting that the opposing team loses.
Gertrude becomes a believer and commissions a dress for the footballers ball. A transformed Gertrude bewitches William. They become engaged and the rest of the women in town begin asking Tilly to make them glamorous dresses. Tilly doesn’t become chummy with these selfish women demanding designer clothes, but she becomes friends with the cross-dressing sergeant and is romantically pursued by Teddy, whose family had looked after her mother. His mentally challenged brother, Barney is (Gyton Grantley) one of Mad Molly’s fun companions. Mad Molly (Judy Davis), Tilly and Barney take golf and make it a different kind of sport.
Evan attempts to undermine Tilly by bringing another dressmaker Una Pleasance (Sach Horler) to town. The fickle females of the town quickly flock to Una until she attempts to design an over-puffed wedding dress for Gertrude to literally runs back to Tilly.
The wedding turns into a disaster for Tilly, but Teddy and his brother help untangle what really happened to Stewart.
Think of Clint Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter” with a lot more fashion flare and some marijuana. Tilly’s weapon is her sewing machine and a wicked, wicked sense of high plains justice. This is a woman’s revenge movie and you’ll want some stylish pumps, a wiggle dress and a martini to properly enjoy it.
“The Dressmaker” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015 and opened in Australia later that year. It opened to a limited release in September of this year. The film has won several awards including Best Lead Actress (Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Weaving) and Best Costume from the Australian Film Institute.