Friday, October 7, 2016

The Dressmaker: Leaves us in stitches

The Dressmaker (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, and rather harshly, for occasional profanity and fleeting drug content

By Derrick Bang 

Revenge is a dish best served with needle and thread.

Metaphors aren’t the only things mixed in director/co-scripter Jocelyn Moorhouse’s deliciously savage adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel. The Dressmaker starts as a tart-tongued Aussie burlesque populated by small-town eccentrics: something of a cross between Tim Burton’s sensibilities, and arch British films such as Cold Comfort Farm and Death at a Funeral.

Returning to her home town after an absence of two decades, Tilly (Kate Winslet,
standing) finds that her first chore is to restore order — and cleanliness — to the
grotesquely messy house in which her mother Molly (Judy Davis) is living.
But just as you’ve settled into what seems a comfortable — if rather scathing — groove, the story takes a jaw-dropping third-act lurch and turns dark. Very dark. Pitch-black gallows humor.

All of which continues to work, even as we gasp for breath. Ham had a lot to say about small-minded, small-town snobbery — “suspicion, malice and prejudice,” in her own words — and such concerns are the thread from which this cutting tapestry is woven. Moorhouse and co-scripter P.J. Hogan (who brought us Muriel’s Wedding) faithfully retain both the tone and essential plot points from Ham’s book, and the result is a tasty blend of social commentary, mystery and oh-so-sweet revenge saga.

The time is 1951, the setting the tiny community of Dungatar, a one-horse town deep in the wheat belt of southeast Australia. The film opens late one night, as a mysterious woman arrives by bus. This is Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet): poised, polished and professional.

And the last person most folks in Dungatar ever wanted to see again.

Moorhouse slyly parcels out brief, sepia-hued flashbacks. As a child, Tilly was hated by the one-room schoolteacher; was the butt of every other child’s prank; was despised even by local adults. The distraught little girl lacked the sophistication to realize that she was being “punished” for being an illegitimate child, her mother Molly (Judy Davis) having defied social convention by remaining in town to raise her daughter alone.

Now, 20 years later, and having been trained in France to become a haute couture designer, Tilly has returned to Dungatar. Ostensibly, she has come back to care for her ailing and now wildly peculiar mother; under the surface, though, Tilly wants answers.

She also wants payback.

The first task, though, may prove impossible. Molly, a bitter recluse with a particularly nasty tongue, won’t even acknowledge Tilly as her daughter; the early confrontations between these two women are hilarious. Davis never has been more wily, Winslet never more grimly determined. Cackling eccentrics are an actor’s dream come true, and Davis milks the role for all it’s worth.

Were it not for my fear that this little film won’t attract any attention, Davis would be a shoo-in for a supporting actress Academy Award nomination, if not the statue itself. Yes, she’s that good.

But Tilly must battle on two fronts. Cleaning out her mother’s ghastly-messy house, and maneuvering an uneasy truce to remain under her roof, is just the first challenge. The second comes when a breathtakingly garbed Tilly makes her public debut, during a local football match. Her smart and provocative appearance has a distracting — and telling — affect on the game, much to the amusement of local star player Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), a hard-working farmer who lives with his impoverished family at the foot of Molly’s property.

Sullen stares emanate from just about everybody else, with the sole exception of the local constable, Sgt. Farrat (Hugo Weaving). He’s atypically kind to Tilly; he’s also oddly attracted to her wardrobe, and unusually familiar with fabrics and fashion.

Details emerge gradually; it turns out that Tilly, as a little girl, was blamed for the death of classmate Stewart Pettyman, the only child of powerful local Councilor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) and his fragile, heavily medicated wife, Marigold (Alison Whyte). Nobody witnessed the supposed event, and even Tilly has blocked out the traumatic details of whatever happened that day, behind the schoolhouse.

Despite this seething layer of community hostility, Tilly gradually becomes viewed as a potentially valuable resource. The first chink in the local armor appears when the plain and somewhat homely Trudy Pratt (Sarah Snook) — daughter of the local mercantile store owner, and one of Tilly’s long-ago schoolmates — wants to catch the eye of eligible bachelor William Beaumont (James Mackay) ... a potential match that horrifies his mother, who regards the girl as “common.”

Tilly accepts the commission to make Trudy a fetching dress — Winslet’s calculating gaze suggesting volumes — and, lo and behold, the transformation is breathtaking. (Truly: Costume designers Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson obviously had a lot of fun with this film.)

Soon, every young woman “chances” to arrive at Molly and Tilly’s home, every time the train drops off another exotic tea chest laden with extravagant fabrics from France. Witnessing this, Molly also changes her tune, and becomes a willing participant in whatever her daughter actually might be up to.

Nor does Tilly’s involvement stop with apparel. She also delivers a box of sweets to the elderly, arthritis-ridden Irma Almanac (Julia Blake), wife of the local pharmacist, Percival (Barry Otto), who keeps Even Pettyman supplied with the medication given to Marigold. Lo and behold, Irma’s pain fades almost immediately, after the first bite.

At first glance, many of these characters — such as the severely hunchbacked Percival, with his hilarious means of walking down the street — seem little more than burlesques designed to encourage laughter. But we soon discover that almost every one of these people has a hidden secret, or a nasty side, or both. Dungatar’s residents are cabin-crazed, bitter, grasping and small-minded, forever seeking advantages over one another.

The only exceptions: Sgt. Farrat, whose fondness for women’s clothing proves much deeper than mere curiosity; and Teddy’s simple-minded brother, Barney (Gyton Grantley), who is by nature kind to everybody, and — of course — is shunned because he’s “not right.”

Then there’s Teddy, who falls in love with Tilly from the first moment he lays eyes on her. This leads to an increasingly amusing dynamic, because the lusty Molly (who knew?) also can’t get enough of this strapping young fella. Nor can she get enough of the whiskey he keeps in a hip flask. As for Tilly, well, love isn’t really on her mind.

It can’t be. “I’m cursed,” she wails, more than once. The point seems hard to argue.

The supporting cast is huge, and many of the lesser players — such as the numerous other young women — run together. Kerry Fox stands out as Beulah Harridiene, the aforementioned schoolteacher, whose spiteful viciousness is breathtaking even under these circumstances. Grantley also does a lovely job as the sweet-tempered Barney.

Weaving is hilarious, particularly once Sgt. Farrat tosses caution to the winds, and allows his “secret self” to emerge. But his character isn’t all broad strokes; Weaving also is poignant as we near the climax, when Farrat makes an unexpected gesture.

Hemsworth is properly dashing as the devoted Teddy: the one person who gives Tilly the courage to stand up to all the other haughty townsfolk.

I’m always fascinated by how film, as an art form, can be so idiosyncratic from one country to the next. Moorhouse’s touch is clearly Australian, the tone and sense of humor similar but notably distinct from that displayed by British, Irish or Scottish filmmakers. Cinematographer Donald McAlpine frames his shots in a way that is equally unique: The landscapes, and the small-town setting, don’t merely look like Australia; the tableaus feel like Australia.

The story builds to a rather unexpected conclusion, although viewers familiar with Shakespeare will exchange a few winks and nods, after the lights come up.

This film’s many delights notwithstanding, it’s probably not to everybody’s taste; the exaggerated characters are straight out of a late 19th century stage farce, and the increasingly macabre tone may be off-putting. But those who enjoy wacky “little films”  — such as The Lady in the Van, St. Vincent and Austenland — are bound to have a good time.

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