Film Review:

‘The Dressmaker’


After a number of glowing recommendations from friends, I finally went to see ‘The Dressmaker'. They were right. This is a wonderful film – funny, sad, quirky, engaging and beautiful to look at. It deservedly won People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film at the recent AACTA Awards.

The opening credits are filmed from above, showing a grid of dusty wheat fields divided by a highway. It’s night-time and a lone Pioneer bus is heading towards its destination. Along the way it stops at a one-horse town somewhere in rural Australia, where an elegant and mysterious passenger, wearing a ‘New Look’ outfit, alights from the bus and deposits a wooden Singer sewing machine case on the ground. It’s the Dressmaker herself, Tilly Dunnage, returning to her hometown of Dungatar to care for her mother who is ill and apparently suffering from dementia.

Set in 1951, ‘The Dressmaker’ is a tale of vengeance and redemption, a variation on the parable of the Prodigal Son, except that this is about a daughter, and she is not welcomed with open arms – quite the opposite. The story will resonate with anyone who was once bullied in the schoolyard and has always dreamt of returning to their hometown, glamorous and successful, to confront their persecutors. There’s also the added element of seeking out the truth about a long-ago death which has tainted many lives.

Veteran cinematographer Don McAlpine (‘Breaker Morant’ and ‘My Brilliant Career’) bring us dusty, sepia landscapes studded with dead gum trees, granite outcrops and squeaking windmills. The little town of Dungatar has one short street lined with archetypal wooden buildings. On a hill within putting distance of the town are the local tip and the rundown house belonging to Tilly’s mother, played with the perfect mix of histrionics and poignancy by Judy Davis, who won an AACTA as Best Supporting Actress.

The cast of ‘The Dressmaker' is faultless. As Tilly, Kate Winslet gives one of the finest performances of a brilliant career, delivered in the best Australian accent I’ve heard from a non-Australian actor – in fact, it’s so good you don’t even notice it! In the supporting cast we encounter old hands such as Barry Otto, Terry Norris and Julia Blake, and a new generation of stars including the intriguing Sarah Snook (‘The Beautiful Lie’ and ‘The Secret River’) and the azure-eyed hunk Liam Hemsworth (this bloke is so gorgeous he doesn’t need to act).

Hugo Weaving is charming as a cross-dressing policeman, while Rebecca Gibney and Shane Jacobson are suitably jovial and harried as the proprietors of the general store with its iconic Golden Fleece signpost featuring the yellow ram. I loved Kerry Fox as the spiteful schoolteacher, Gyton Grantley as Hemsworth’s ‘slow’ brother, and Shane Bourne as the villain (well, one of the villains).

And finally there would be no film without the fabulous frocks, designed by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson, which transform the ladies of the town from frumps to pinup girls. Sarah Snook’s makeover, in particular, is a delight.

‘The Dressmaker’ is directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and produced by Sue Maslin from the novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham (which I’ll definitely be putting on my Christmas list). The screenplay was written by Jocelyn Moorhouse and her husband, P.J. Hogan.


In short, ‘The Dressmaker’ is a beautifully crafted film which swings between comedy and pathos and never fails to enchant.

TRIVIA: Sue Maslin and Rosalie Ham went to high school together.

Deborah O’Brien

13 December 2015