Friday, 04 December 2015

The Dressmaker

Kate Winslet has fun with an indulgent fantasy of revenge and haute couture in the outback

Written by Ben Felsenburg
Ben-Felsenburg-colour-176It’s strange to think that Kate Winslet’s career as a leading actress has been going for more than 20 years, although she’s only just turned 40. What’s stranger still is how that career is, in a way, just starting to get going. We all sat up and took notice when she played a teenage murderess in 1950s New Zealand for Heavenly Creatures in 1994. Then it was as Rose in Titanic that Winslet was catapulted to a stratospheric level of fame. Yet now that she’s reached the age at which Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn were starting to get into their stride, it seems Winslet feels licensed to choose roles that don’t exactly scream box-office records, but in which she can give full vent to her imagination.

The Dressmaker takes her once more to the Southern hemisphere in the 1950s, but this time around to Australia, specifically the outback town of Dungatar, which is essentially no more than a few shacks in the desert with a couple of shops on what passes for the high street, but not much else. All of which makes the entrance of Winslet’s character, Tilly Dunnage, so much the more striking, for she steps off a train wearing exquisite haute couture of the period, perfectly dressed for a night out in Paris but not this backwater wilderness. Even more strangely, the local police sergeant (Hugo Weaving) is far from the grizzled ruffian you might expect and instead greets her with a camply admiring ‘Dior?’ No, comes the reply – she made the outfit herself.

The scene is shot exactly in the style of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, but instead of having Clint Eastwood with a Colt .45, Tilly is armed only with a Singer sewing machine as she surveys the town with the look of an avenging angel. Why? Well, there’s the way the folk of Dungatar abandoned her mother Molly (Judy Davis) to live in isolation in her shabby home. But what’s really driving’s Tilly fury is how she was exiled as a child for a murder she has no memory of committing. At first she’s still ostracised, but it’s not long before her marvellous tailoring has won at least the superficial semblance of friendship, and that high street begins to resemble a fashion show catwalk. Redemption for Tilly could be close at hand – and a man of her own too, in the pleasing form of Liam Hemsworth as a conveniently available bachelor about town.

The Dressmaker is a madcap phantasmagoria that has definite echoes of other Australian films (think Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, which also starred Weaving), but this is also a decidedly indulgent fantasy, serving up the most delicious fashions and in which no misbehaving man goes unpunished. There are moments that will stretch your patience, but the film-makers can’t be faulted for their ambition, and Winslet gives a convincing impression of a star having the time of her life. And though we’re on dry land, look out for the curious echo of Titanic in the fate of one major character.

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