Death Becomes Kate: Our Review of ‘The Dressmaker’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - September 23, 2016
Death Becomes Kate: Our Review of ‘The Dressmaker’

Based on Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel of the same name, Jocelyn Moorehouse’s The Dressmaker feels like a new version of the Australian films we’ve seen before. Moorehouse sticks her camera into her characters’ unwashed faces and missing teeth. She even gets low angles to make them seem brash and abrasive. Sometimes they stand, like outlines against the familiar outback, as if she put both foreground and background together on post. I might have found a new version of a hidden gem I’d catch on TV or on a repertory theatre. Or at least a polished version of it. And it doubles down on that polish for better or for worse.

There’s a scene where a well dressed woman arrives in the small town of Dungatar, Australia. She finds all these women dressed more fashionably than she does. Audiences like the one I saw this with see the campy humour in a scene like this. Trains and sleeves of gowns flutter through the dusty winds of the outback. The titular character, Tilly Dunnage, played by Kate Winslet, arrives in town like Meyrl in Death Becomes Her to make dresses for these women, maybe doing so out of pity . She might even be doing this to bring these women into the 1950’s, an aesthetic that still fits with movies now. But she’s also doing this so that these women will like her and her outcast mother, Molly (Judy Davis).


The film plays like rehash of A Banished Aussie Back in the Outback’s Court, where Tilly brings her Parisian knowledge a few times zones away. Or even lob a few golf balls to the citizens who made her childhood in Dungatar hell. But she’s also back to ask Molly whether or not she did kill a town councillor’s young son 25 years ago. She posts the same question to her growing amount of sympathizers. Trauma can jog someone’s memory, and the film’s sepia tone flashbacks hinder instead of help. The town has convinced itself that she’s done it but she wants to remember herself if she did it. She does have allies, like the policeman (Hugo Weaving) and her neighbour Teddy (Liam Hensworth).

Tilly’s altruistic aims seem to succeed. Her first customer is Gertrude, a frumpy grocer’s daughter who has a crush on a rich woman’s daughter. As Gertrude dresses better her attitude changes, and the same goes with every customer Tilly gets. It’s always fun to watch confident women in beautiful dresses, and it’s just as entertaining to watch that power get into their heads. I’m starting to get ambivalent feeling towards these character arcs because the transformations seem arbitrary and a little superficial.dressmaker-gallery-03

I’ve always resented it when other critics use the word melodrama when they see a hint of a woman protagonist on screen. There’s a scrappy characteristic to these women that transcend a pejorative term that’s haunted recent female-led films. There’s also the film’s environment that adds a Westrern feel to the proceedings. And it makes the characters want something more than to help each other out. It even gets a little violent. It throws a lot on screen, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one entertained by such a film. Even if it’s fluffy.

The Dressmaker enters a limited release on September 23.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you’re working.