THE DRESSMAKER (M)
Shanghai night field

Stars: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Kerry Fox, Shane Bourne, Hugo Weaving

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse

Screening: general release

Rating: ★★★★

JOCELYN Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker is about the return of a prodigal daughter, and you might say it was made by one. While Moorhouse still has a high reputation as an n filmmaker, she has not shot a feature in her homeland since her debut Proof in the early ’90s. But this hectic, clattering Gothic farce, based on a novel by Rosalie Ham, finds her back with a vengeance.

In dead of night, the glamorous Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) arrives in the remote wheatbelt town of Dungatar, her Singer sewing machine by her side. As we soon discover, this is the home she was sent away from as a child, under ambiguous circumstances, which saw her implicated in the death of a schoolmate.

Even now, in 1951, the rumours haven’t subsided: Tilly herself fears she may be cursed, and Mad Molly (Judy Davis), her cranky old bag of a mother, initially refuses to recognise her. But Tilly is determined to set things right, or at least find out what really happened on that fateful day. She moves into Molly’s hilltop shack and, having learned her trade in the great fashion houses of Europe, she sets about introducing the local matrons to the joys of haute couture.

Teddy McSwiney’s (Liam Hemsworth) role as Tilly Dunnage’s (Kate Winslet) love interest isn’t conventional.

Whatever may be suggested by this synopsis, The Dressmaker is not one of those sentimental fables in which a free-spirited stranger brings new life to a repressed community. Like many outback towns in n cinema, Dungatar is something of a hellhole, its very name suggesting a smelly place where the hapless get stuck.

Its citizens also tend to be given blunt allegorical names, from the vicious schoolteacher Beulah Harridiene (Kerry Fox) to the slimy civic leader Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne).

Those few characters worthy of sympathy tend to be outsiders of one kind or another – such as Sergeant Horatio Farrat, a friendly policeman and closet transvestite played by Hugo Weaving.

Another partial outsider is Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a rugged hunk from a family of rubbish collectors who serves as Tilly’s love interest, though his role isn’t quite what it would be in a conventional feelgood entertainment.

The great scene-stealer is Davis, who’s able to make Molly into an outlandish comic figure without eliminating all nuance, since the shamelessness belongs as much to the character as to the performer. Molly may be a recluse, but she relishes having an audience to play to.

Truth be told, Moorhouse has so many characters and subplots to juggle that her storytelling can feel disjointed: some weighty developments are skated over so rapidly we might wonder if they really happened at all. On the other hand, the lurches from broad comedy to grim melodrama and back are evidently intentional – part of a strategy for throwing the viewer off-balance, along with the dramatic colour contrasts and spatial distortions of Don McAlpine’s cinematography.

This cartoonish yet confrontational approach recalls the work of Moorhouse’s husband P.J. Hogan, who collaborated with her on The Dressmaker’s script. Absent, however, is Hogan’s softness of heart. By the end, it’s clear that Moorhouse wasn’t joking when she publicly compared the plot of The Dressmaker to Clint Eastwood’s great revisionist Western Unforgiven – though the film could also be seen as the long-delayed feminist answer to Wake In Fright.

Either way, it’s not for nothing that Tilly’s favourite colour, bright red, evokes both fire and blood.

All questions of taste and plausibility aside, The Dressmaker is a hoot and a healthy shock to the system. n cinema may never be quite the same again.