David Strat­ton and Stephen Romei as­sess the lat­est re­leases

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - David Strat­ton

The Dress­maker (M) Na­tional re­lease Mis­tress Amer­ica (MA15+) Lim­ited re­lease 5 to 7 (M) Lim­ited re­lease

Myr­tle Dun­nage’s re­turn to the drab, dusty town­ship of Dun­gatar in 1951 af­ter many years of ex­ile is brazen. “I’m back you bas­tards,” she an­nounces to no­body in par­tic­u­lar. Myr­tle (Kate Winslet), who prefers to be called Tilly, has spent time in the most so­phis­ti­cated cen­tres of Europe since she was ex­iled “for the good of us all”, as one Dun­gatar lo­cal puts it, but now she’s back and ap­par­ently seek­ing re­venge.

This is the premise of The Dress­maker, the an­tic­i­pated film ver­sion of Ros­alie Ham’s novel (pub­lished in 2000), which marks the re­turn of an­other ex­ile, di­rec­tor Jo­ce­lyn Moor­house, 24 years af­ter her pre­vi­ous Aus­tralian film ( Proof) and 18 years af­ter her last film, A Thou­sand Acres, the sec­ond of the two films she made in Hol­ly­wood. If only Moor­house’s re­turn to the cin­ema could be wel­comed with open arms, but The Dress­maker is a bit of a mess, with a plot that fails to hang to­gether and a style that of­ten favours the grotesque.

To start with the pos­i­tives: the film looks ab­so­lutely mag­nif­i­cent. Right from the open­ing aerial shots of the Aus­tralian land­scape you know you’re in for a vis­ual treat and vet­eran Don McAlpine proves he is, and al­ways has been, among the finest of the il­lus­tri­ous rol­lcall of Aus­tralian cin­e­matog­ra­phers. Then there’s Judy Davis. Since her first ma­jor screen role, in Gil­lian Arm­strong’s My Bril­liant Ca­reer back in 1979, Davis has been a con­sum­mate screen per­former; the ve­hi­cles in which she ap­peared were of­ten un­wor­thy of her, but you could never take your eyes off her (and of course her stage per­for­mances across the same pe­riod have been equally note­wor­thy). Here she plays Tilly’s mother, Molly, first seen hid­ing un­der the dirty sheets in the squalid bed­room of the house on the hill where she has al­ways lived. She seems to be se­nile and claims not to recog­nise her daugh­ter, but Molly isn’t as mad as she pre­tends to be; far from it. Davis is ex­cep­tional in this role and suc­ceeds — in a way that other mem­bers of the cast do not — in mak­ing a car­i­ca­ture of a char­ac­ter seem com­pletely real.

One of the film’s prob­lems is this over-thetop ap­proach that gives some very ta­lented ac­tors li­cence to over­act. I won­dered if this el­e­ment of The Dress­maker had to do with the con­tri­bu­tion to the screen­play of PJ Ho­gan (Moor­house’s part­ner); in his finest film, Muriel’s Wed­ding (1994), Ho­gan suc­ceeded in mak­ing some larger-than-life char­ac­ters com­pletely con­vinc­ing, but he failed con­spic­u­ously to do the same with Men­tal (2012), a film that shares many of the ex­cesses of The Dress­maker.

It seems at first that this is a re­venge movie. Tilly was badly treated in the past, ac­cused of killing a boy her own age and forced by po­lice­man Far­rat (Hugo Weav­ing) to leave town. This, frankly, makes no sense. When the boy was killed (flash­backs il­lus­trate this back­story)

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