Arts & Culture · Film & Television

In ‘The Dressmaker,’ Hell Hath No Fury Like Kate Winslet and Her Sewing Machine

As a drama major in the early 1980s, I read the play The Visit by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The story revolves around two former lovers, Claire and Anton, in the small town of Güllen. Many years before, Anton seduced Claire, then rejected their baby. He went on to be the most successful man in town. She ran away to Hamburg, became a prostitute, lost her child, but eventually grew enormously rich. She has returned to Güllen with a rather interesting proposition. She’ll give the town a billion francs, divided equally amongst each family, provided that someone kill Anton. Naturally, the townspeople are shocked and refuse her offer. But, then an interesting thing happens. Everyone (including the mayor and the police chief) begins to buy things on credit. Anton, desperate, realizes that his days are numbered, and eventually a townsman (a brawny figure known simply as “the athlete”) does indeed strangle him, while the rest of Güllen, complicit, looks on. Claire pays up and leaves.

I remember this particular selection from my World Drama II syllabus very well. First of all, my father actually played “the athlete” in 1958 on Broadway with theatre royalty Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt in the leading roles. And second, the concept of the woman scorned, returning and exacting revenge, is a pretty powerful fantasy. (Happily, I was never cast out quite like Claire, but I did imagine similar scenes — and outcomes — for one or two ex-boyfriends in my time. What can I say? I was a drama major.)

The Dressmaker, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film based on the novel by Rosalie Ham, is certainly dramatic. It’s about another woman scorned. Tilly (née Myrtle) Dunnage returns to the dusty Australian town of Dungatar, 25 years after being exiled for allegedly murdering a schoolmate. She can’t remember the circumstances (she was only 10 at the time); she wants to understand what happened, and absolve herself if she can. She’s also concerned about her mother, “Mad Molly,” who lives as a recluse uphill from the town. And, perhaps most importantly, she’s returned to bring some much needed style to the pitiable grey and frowsy women of Dungatar.

“Is that . . . a Dior?” gasps the police sergeant, who we soon learn is a flamboyant cross-dresser.

“You have a good eye,” Tilly confirms, admitting that the dress is inspired by the Parisian master but actually one of her own designs.

After establishing herself as a shameless femme fatale at a local soccer match, Tilly sets up a robust business. The same women who drove her away years before (and still gossip viciously about her behind her back) now clamor for her exquisite creations. Their lust is palpable — and comical. In fact, some of the movie’s most indelible moments are quick scenes of what appears to be a prairie backwater overgrown with sophisticated if utterly incongruous fashionistas. But, while Tilly may be willing to make dresses, she isn’t there to make peace. Her very first line when she returns: “I’m back, bitches.”

Tilly holds the entire town responsible for what happened to her, and their individual culpability and characters are revealed one by one. In fact, she has only a handful of allies: her mother, who has some method to her madness and her own reasons to resent Dungatar’s upstanding citizens; the aforementioned police sergeant Horatio Farrat; and young stud Teddy McSwiney who pursues her.

“The way I figure, you came here for one of two reasons,” he flirts, “Revenge. Or me.” Tilly is clearly the most interesting thing to happen to Dungatar in some time. Teddy is smitten. And, it’s no wonder. We are too.

The best thing about The Dressmaker is, of course, Kate Winslet. Her Tilly is immediately too good, not to mention too glamorous, for Dungatar. But, she’s unwilling to forgive and forget. The movie and its director give Winslet a marvelous opportunity to explore every emotion. And, she is, as usual, mesmerizing.

 

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  • Jeanie October 11, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Such an interesting review! Now, we have to see this movie.

    Reply
  • Andrea October 11, 2016 at 8:17 am

    Thank you for your -always amusing and vivid- review Alexandra! Watched the trailer. It looks wonderful and always adore Kate Winslet!

    Reply