Town of malice sews what it reaps

The West Australian

FILM

The Dressmaker

Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth

DIRECTOR JOCELYN MOORHOUSE

REVIEW RAY CHAN

Jocelyn Moorhouse's The Dressmaker brings together a stellar cast of Australian screen veterans in this adaptation of the Rosalie Ham novel, but whose main character is played by an Oscar-winning English actress.

Displaying an admirable Aussie accent, Kate Winslet is Tilly Dunnage, the prodigal daughter who returns to the remote wheatbelt town of Dungatar, her Singer sewing machine by her side.

Tilly has become a skilled dressmaker in the years since she was sent away from the community when a little girl, and is now determined to discover more about the reasons for her banishment, unsure if she was to blame for the death of a childhood friend.

Her cranky mother, Mad Molly (Judy Davis), initially reluctant to acknowledge her daughter, eventually accepts her back as Tilly settles into town and wins muted approval from the overbearing local matrons for her haute couture.

Along the way, Tilly befriends several characters who, in one fashion or another, are outcasts as much as she is in an insular place where hatred, haughtiness and hostility are commonplace: Sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving) is a friendly policeman and closet transvestite who rues his part in Tilly's initial expulsion, and Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a handsome lad from a family of rubbish collectors who serves as Tilly's love interest.

Ever level-headed, Tilly keeps her cool despite lingering viciousness from Dungatar's more odious citizens, such as schoolteacher Beulah Harridiene (Kerry Fox) and slippery civic leader Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne).

But it is Davis which steals the show, with her effulgent comedic timing and smart dialogue delivery, effectively transforming Molly from a querulous old coot into a likable, charming and noble woman by film's end, one who clearly loved her daughter but was shamed into her behaviour by a secret liaison.

If you haven't read the book, be prepared for twists and turns along the way, as the story often meanders away from the oft-trodden track into unexpected territory.

This is no sentimental yarn where a good-hearted individual brings inspiration and joy to a repressed, unforgiving lot.

You might even say the townfolk sew what they reap, after Tilly exacts her revenge on her town of malice.

The journey there makes for some brilliant viewing, interspersed with moments of black comedy, sadness and a fair share of unpredictability. Yet one can't help wondering how more effective it could have been had the main protagonist displayed more certainty instead of languishing between remorse and vengeance at the same time.

Tilly's reaction at her ultimate discovery of betrayal is somewhat subdued, lessening the impact of her ultimate act of retribution.

Even so, it's a beautiful-looking film, and reminds us of how good Australian productions can be, with this one standing head and shoulders above the lot of science fiction, action and rom com offerings that compete for current attention.

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