(M) Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth

By Ben McEachen


Hate, revenge and haute couture converge when Tilly (Winslet) returns to her remote home-town, having spent years away following a murderous scandal.

Unforgiven with a sewing machine. That's how Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof) has summed up her first feature in almost 20 years. Such tweet-friendly provocation isn't too far off. The Dressmaker's fine swag of old West looks and feels is woven into a rural 1950s Australia setting – by way of an Amelie make-over of surreal realism.

Striving for a heightened fairytale able to pull heart-strings doesn't always end in Chocolat. But when stylish seamstress Tilly comes back home, the unusual ramifications warmly and enjoyably walk the tightrope between OTT and resounding.

Largely confined within fictional Dungatar – imagine the set of Dogville with actual houses, nestled in Victorian pastures – Moorhouse runs elegantly wild with Rosalie Ham's bestselling novel. Special round of applause for Don McAlpine's cinematography and Roger Ford's production design; each contribute high-plains grandeur to the outback eccentricities.

Revenge is a key if unclear factor in the shocking homecoming of Tilly (played with vintage aplomb by Kate Winslet). Continuing to reverberate through this one-street town of vicious secrecy, slander and repression is the impact Tilly had on it as a child. Most vividly, the madness of her mother Molly (Judy Davis; stellar) constantly reminds of how Tilly left – and why she's back to confront it.

What seems a straight-up dose of payback proves otherwise. One of The Dressmaker's most engaging elements is the mosaic of tone, genre and storytelling it confidently corrals. For all its film-making fabrics, the spinning of this creative yarn could have been a garish mess. Take the kitsch Australiana that routinely arises. Barry Otto's hunched zealot or Rebecca Gibney's gabby shopkeeper represent well the perilous extremes that are flirted with. But Moorhouse's light touch reigns in our cringes, guiding us through comic conflict into potent drama about repression and identity.

At a time when domestic violence remains, ashamedly, on the national agenda, the poignancy of The Dressmaker's undercurrent of men abusing women can sneak up on you. Particularly, the cycles of acceptance (although a sex scene involving a cad and his comatose wife verges on needless shock). Cathartic stabs of violence and comeuppance are played most for lingering impact, not merely to milk our basest emotions.

Crucial to our feeling something about Tilly's search for self is Moorhouse's cast. One of the most consistent and fully utilised Australian ensembles in some time provides excellent foil, farce and grist to the core players.

Davis as the biting but damaged Molly shall instantly be regaled with “born to play” plaudits. So great to see her trading barbs and sorrow with Winslet, their bond ensuring The Dressmaker doesn't sag into saccharine. Winslet's international standing and poise are made for Tilly, yet it might be Liam Hemsworth who nabs top honours.

Like some sort of bush-hunk spin on Atticus Finch, Hemsworth's charming commoner Teddy encapsulates what is to savour about The Dressmaker. Moments of cack turn up during his earnest interaction with Tilly. But, just as Moorhouse does throughout, Hemsworth navigates assuredly with knowing panache and palpable emotion.

An odd and effective novelty that manages to harness comedy, drama and kooky Australiana. Oh, and it has heart and punch.

This review was originally published in Empire's November 2015 edition. For more Empire, click here.