If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage’s (Kate Winslet) arrival back in her small, dusty backwater hometown of Dungatar in 1951 after many years away in involuntary exile, heralds the mother of all frozen banquets.
Not that this is immediately obvious in the opening scenes of Jocelyn Moorehouses’s The Dressmaker, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham.
Arriving back in the dead of night by bus, she is decked out in eye-grabbing haute couture designed and made by her, the product of an adult lifetime spent in the grand capitals of Europe learning her trade as a seamstress and a dressmaker.
It is one she is inordinately good at, possessing an almost divine ability to know which dress will suit which woman (and yes, one man), she is supposedly back to tend to her ailing, flamboyantly incorrect mother “Mad” Molly (Judy Davis in stupendously over the top form).
The only person to notice her under the radar arrival is local policeman, Sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who has subsumed his homosexuality and penchant for dressing in gorgeous dresses in favour of a quiet, uneventful life.
He follows her to mother’s dilapidated, rubbish-filled home high up on the hill that looks down upon the small single street township below where the poisonous nest of vipers masquerading as the local townsfolk rather ironically spend their time looking up in rather scornful fashion at a woman they label a “slut” for having a child, Tilly, out of wedlock.
Reconnecting through a love of dresses and their shared outsider status, the Seargeant and Tilly form a chiffon-clad bond that sees them through the unexpectedly tumultuous events to come; Farrat, it turns out, is one of the very people genuinely glad to see Tilly come home.
Of course, none of that us-against-the-world vibe is immediately apparent in a film that initially suggests, poster tagline aside, that it might one of those heartwarming redemptive tales of poor-local-girl-made-good who inspires her dispirited seen-better-times town to come alive and make more out of life than they have previously have been.
And for a time, the Cinderella effect seems in full, romantic effect with mousey, unkempt storekeeper’s daughter Gertrude “Gert”/”Trudy” Pratt (Sarah Snook) finding herself transformed by one of Tilly’s breathtakingly beautiful, transformative gowns into the belle of the ball.
The rest of the townswomen follow suit and soon we are treated to the delightfully absurdist image of haute couture-clad housewives and storekeepers going about their daily business in the sort of clothing more suited to a grand promenade down the Champs-Élysées.
Everything points to Tilly being forgiven for the great sin committed years earlier, one hazy in details but known by all to involve the death of a school “mate” of Tilly’s, Stewart Pettyman (Rory Potter) in mysteriously macabre circumstances, an event completely forgotten by the returned dressmaking prodigal who is back, in part, to find out what really happened to drive her away from her town, and more importantly, her now greatly-neglected mother.
But we’re given hints here and there, most notably by certain prominent locals including Shire President Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) and bitter schoolteacher Beulah Harridiene (Kerry Fox) who greet Tilly’s return to Dungatar with undisguised contempt, that there is no fairytale ending in the offing.
At least not if they have anything to do with it, and as with pretty much everything that happens in Dungatar’s suffocating confines, they most certainly do.
But any sense that we’re in for some sort of bleak, dark deviation from the Pollyanna overtones that pepper the first half of the town are largely put to rest, though not completely, by a mischievous, almost gleefully camp and surreal to proceedings which sees Tilly send an AFL game into disarray with her plunging necklines and Molly and her daughter locked in an hilarious, physical battle of the wills about whether a long overdue bath is needed or not.
This sense of playful melodrama is laced through the rather bubbly storyline, the only dark cloud on the horizon Tilly’s near-mournful countenance which she bravely disguises with a confidently-jaunty air but which she can never quite hide.
Grave she might be most of the time but it’s not enough to dissuade handsome local boy with a heart of gold Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) who sets about wooing Tilly, a woman who believes she’s cursed and ill-deserving of any kind of affection, let alone unconditional love.
Many of these sweeter, Cinderella elements are allowed to play out, and play out to stupendously engaging effect, but little but by little bit, Tilly’s past, and the small-minded callousness of local people with nothing better to do than gossip and malign comes to the fore, and The Dressmaker takes a great absurdistly melodramatic leap into the sort of dark territory that suggests darker forces are at play.
Granted Moorhouse probably allows things to get a little too over the top in the second half of the film, with one revengeful moment after another playing out like a cartoonish morality play on speed.
But by and large, the juxtaposition of drama and comic absurdity works and works brilliantly, giving us a film that is apt to raise uproarious laughs as it is to engender deep philosophical post-movie moving and more than a tear or two.
The Dressmaker is essentially about what happens when the wounds of the past are never healed but allowed to fester beneath a paper-thin covering of good graces and propriety.
Nothing is resolved, no one receives justice of gets forgiven, and for a time it looks like Tilly’s grand plan to find out the truth behind her exile, and seek redress for the harm caused to herself and her mother, might come to nought.
But then The Dressmaker ramps up into high gear and we’re treated to an ever-escalating series of ever more hyperbolic events that while funny, come with some grim comeuppances and justice well and truly served.
In a film drenched in vivid colours, both haute couture and landscape-generated, and a most definite sense of time and place, both in the past and the present, and a percolating sense that all hell will be unleashed in the most entertaining way possible, The Dressmaker makes for rewarding, thigh-slappingly enjoyable viewing that leaves you laughing, thinking and deeply moved in equal, quite memorable, measure.