David Stratton and Stephen Romei assess the latest releases
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)