2015 / Director. Jocelyn Moorhouse.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
Ever since I saw PROOF in the late 90's I have had a keen interest in the work of Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse. I followed her every more after she jumped the pond and made two relatively successful Hollywood films (HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT and A THOUSAND ACRES). But then there was very little... she slipped off the radar and only resurfaced occasionally in a writer/producer capacity alongside her husband PJ Hogan. For the last fifteen years I have kept returning to IMDb, looking her up in hopes that she would make an unexpected return. You can imagine my happiness last year when a brand new film was listed; THE DRESSMAKER!
Set in the 1950s in rural Victoria (Australia) the film tells the story of Myrtle Dunnage, a woman who returns to her small country hometown to recall forgotten memories and look after her ailing mother. Accused of murder as a ten year old, she was taken away to live in the city to attend boarding school. During her formative years she travelled the world and became an expert dressmaker in Europe. Her return home was much to the disgust of the local community and with her work cut out for her she attempts to clear her name and exact revenge on those who wronged her.
This is a stunning little film with a brilliant production design and a delightfully quirky nuance. Shot in the rural outskirts of Melbourne, Moorehouse build an entire town from scratch and instantly provided her film with an atypical aesthetic that embodies both the historical context of 1950's Australia as well as the endearing stereotypical “Aussie” twang that has evolved throughout the literature and art over the years. In a recent interview Moorhouse described the film as “Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven with a sewing machine” and to an extent, she's right. Beneath the quirkiness of THE DRESSMAKER is a dark and multilayered drama that has the film's genre teetering on a line. Part comedy, part tragedy and part thriller. It's a strange and wonderful amalgamation that refuses to be pinned down.
The cast is also incredible. Kate Winslett takes the lead and she has managed to nail the Aussie accent perfectly. Having her headline such a film continues the long tradition of having foreign A-list names appearing in our local films and helping to push the projects beyond our borders. She is a welcome presence in this film and she lights up the screen. But lets not ignore the rest of the cast, which is comprised of one of the most impressive and unexpected ensembles I've seen in an Aussie film to date. The players include; Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Kerry Fox, Shane Jacobson, Rebecca Gibney, Saran Snook, Gyton Grantley, Barry Otto, Alison Whyte, Caronline Goodall, Shane Bourne, Julia Blake and Genevieve Lemon amongst others (wow). And it's also great to see forgotten faces such as Tracey Harvey and Margot Knight.
Judy Davis offers an outstanding turn as the haggish and drunken mother who lives her life like a hermit. Her performance is hilarious and her character of Molly Dunnage is one the best of her career. With such a strong and witty script to work off of, she provides the film with much of its heart and it's difficult to imagine any other actress in the role. The rapport between her and Winslett is strong and together they solidify what could have easily become a wish-washy, overly sentimental film.
Running at 118 minutes the film overstays its welcome by about 10 minutes, but fortunately those unnecessary minutes lie within the middle act and bare no detriment to the overall story, which concludes on a sensational note. It's wonderful to have Jocelyn Moorhouse back on the scene and I can only hope that THE DRESSMAKER is a sign of more to come. My fingers are crossed that she's found her groove and has caught the bug for filmmaking again.