The Dressmaker movie review: haute couture as a tragicomic weapon

MaryAnn’s quick take: So entertaining, so unexpected, so wonderfully oddball, so damn good. Witty genre-busting simmering with pathos, humor, and calamity.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Kate Winslet; desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Like a gunslinger riding into town. Determined and dangerous. This is how director Jocelyn Moorhouse depicts the return of Tilly Dunnage to her backwater Australian town of Dungatar. The locale may be vaguely western-ish — remote and dusty — but the year is 1951 and Tilly comes armed only with a Singer sewing machine, her Parisian-inspired haute-couture style, and a superpowered ache for revenge.

I had no idea what I was in for with The Dressmaker, and even that opening — with its witty genre-busting that culminates in Tilly’s snarl to herself of “I’m back, you bastards” — couldn’t possibly have clued me in. Because this movie is so far outside the paradigm of what we’re used to seeing onscreen that the less you know about it — and I knew absolutely nothing going in except that it starred Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth — the better. I’m going to be as circumspect as I can be while trying to convey how much you need to see this movie. I would recommend not watching any trailers or ads if you can avoid it.

If a woman could be badass about fashion, Tilly (Winslet: Steve Jobs, Insurgent) is it. She has been gone from Dungatar a long time: she was sent away, in fact, as a child after something bad happened that she cannot quite remember but feels was an injustice. And she was a sort of child outcast even before the bad thing. But now, she will not be ignored or belittled. Fashion is her weapon, and it is a sharp weapon indeed in this harsh place, when Tilly can make her grand public entrance at a little local football match in a Hollywood-glam red gown and literally bring the game to a halt not just because she’s dazzlingly beautiful but because she is supremely confident with it. We come to see that Dungatar is an insular world in which women have little power (not unexpectedly for the place and time, or indeed any place and time), and here comes Tilly unashamedly wielding her own sort of power, a power she doesn’t merely brandish but also creates: she is the dressmaker, of course. And the women in the town want some of that for themselves, and start to come to her to have her make dresses for them.

The town still despises Tilly, and she them, but she is happy to take their money, and for a while, The Dressmaker feels a bit like Cold Comfort Farm, with the city girl comedically bringing elegant civilization to the middle of nowhere, all the ladies of the town prancing to the post office or the general store in glamorous and wildly impractical gowns. These women enjoying how amazing they look: it’s all at least as much about the pathos of their limited lives as it is about the culture-clash comedy, but hints of much darker things going on in Dungatar start coming to fore now, too. And then this starts to feel a bit like Cold Comfort Farm as directed by Tim Burton, simmering with as much tragedy as comedy.

But one of the things that makes this so unique — sadly so — is how very much it is all presented from a woman’s perspective. Moorhouse — who hasn’t made a film since 1997’s A Thousand Acres, which is ridiculous — didn’t just direct but also adapted (with P.J. Hogan, a dude) Rosalie Ham’s novel, and she pulls no punches when it comes to the distinct sort of soul-crushing that women can be subjected to. (One instance of this is depicted with such everyday matter-of-factness that it is shocking… except that it clearly is a horribleness of regular occurrence.) Sure, the convoluted web of deceit, bigotry, hypocrisy, and small-mindedness that is Dungatar hurts men too — such as the town cop with a secret, Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Mystery Road) — but the ways in which women’s spirits are mangled are many, and more difficult to escape. We see it in Tilly’s mother, Molly (Judy Davis: The Break-Up, Marie Antoinette). We see it in Marigold Pettyman (Alison Whyte), wife of the local politician. We see it in the daughter of the grocers, Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook: Steve Jobs, Sleeping Beauty), who is transformed from a frump to a starlet by Tilly’s dresses. We see how these women are all all but inescapably constrained and defined by what the men around them want from them, and that taking back power for oneself is, for a woman, not even remotely simply a matter of looking good (and doesn’t, in fact, require high glam at all). Fashion and beauty here are outward expressions of the mustering of inner resources — fashion and beauty aren’t actually powerful in themselves, at least not beyond the merely momentary.

Unlike in so many movies directed by men, about men, The Dressmaker does not ask us to appreciate how these women look to our eyes. Moorhouse asks us to appreciate how these women feel about how they look, and what it means to them, not what it means to those looking at them. There is no male gaze here. And there is a distinct female gaze. The camera looks with longing on Hemsworth’s (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Paranoia) Dungatar born-and-bred boy Teddy McSwiney, who decides instantly upon Tilly’s return that he has a crush on her; I always thought Hemsworth was cute enough but not terribly intriguing, but the way Moorhouse looks at him here is hot. (How actors are depicted onscreen is not neutral! Perspective matters, and we hardly ever see a woman’s perspective.) And a woman’s idea of what is sexy in how a man behaves toward her comes to the fore, too. The first time Teddy kisses Tilly? Wow. *fans self*

But now I’m angry. The Dressmaker is so entertaining, so unexpected, so wonderfully oddball, so damn good… and it’s being all but ignored. It is getting a wide release here in the U.K., but without any significant promotion — I only learned about it because I saw posters for it in the tube! I didn’t receive a single press release about it — and dumped into the same weekend as the final Hunger Games movie, where it will be lost. It doesn’t have a U.S. release date at all, even after a well-received debut at the Toronto Film Festival a few months ago. It’s not superheroes or Star Wars, so it’s just not important? Infuriating. It’s almost an underscore on what the movie has to say about how women get crushed.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Dressmaker for its representation of girls and women.

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Fri, Nov 20, 2015 4:28pm

I had been wondering just this morning if Jocelyn Moorhouse would ever make another film.* Proof is one of my favorite movies of all time, and Hugo Weaving’s performance is almost certainly my favorite screen acting of all time. I’m glad they had a chance to work together again. Maybe I’ll rewatch Proof while I’m waiting for The Dressmaker to come out in thee U.S.

*I looked for her name in this article:

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Fri, Nov 20, 2015 5:08pm

*Proof* is such an amazing movie. I should watch it again too!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Fri, Nov 20, 2015 10:21pm

Oh, and by the way, I posted something about that Times article on Facebook this morning, and it’s here’s now too.

Steve Gagen
Steve Gagen
Mon, Nov 23, 2015 12:36am

I agree – Jocelyn Moorhouse has been away far too long. Like you, I loved “Proof” – I haven’t seen it for many years, but it still lives with me. For those who don’t know, P.J. Hogan is Jocelyn’s husband. he was also the director of the wonderful Muriel’s Wedding, among other gems.

Mon, Dec 26, 2016 4:40am

Wait, back up, this director directed an adaptation of A Thousand Acres? God, I want to see this even more now. (A Thousand Acres was one of my favorite books from high school reading. Okay, and also everything by Richard Wright. And Catch-22. And Slaughterhouse 5. I had a pretty good reading list in high school).

Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:05pm

Finally saw this over the long weekend on DVD. I really really liked it, with one small quibble…I wasn’t thrilled with the editing in a couple parts where serious lines were apparently delivered in such a way as to seem melodramatic along the lines of a Joan Crawford movie. That made the writing seem weak.

BUT, a great story, love all the actors, been so long since I’ve seen Judy Davis in anything it is embarrassing.