The Dressmaker – indeed, a “revenge” movie

A glamorous woman returns to her small town in rural Australia. With her sewing machine and haute couture style, she transforms the women and exacts sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.

As written here, The Dressmaker describes itself as a revenge-film, a darkly funny movie about a woman who returns as an adult to a town that mistreated her as a child. She of course has returned not only a striking beauty, but also with a phenomenal sense of style, and an understanding of how to use her sewing machine to make not only herself but any other woman who is willing to hire her into the most stunning woman in the room. It’s not long before her skill allows her to become newly integrated into this community, and even to, seemingly, find a measure of healing.

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The Dressmaker

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At this point in the film I was thinking the whole “revenge” part of the logline was a bit of an overstatement. The movie was looking more like a character drama with the unique flavor of taking place in an Australian country town. Kate Winslet’s Tilly was a troubled woman who was finding a sense peace with her past as she confronted the various figures who had wronged her, reconciled her broken relationship with her mother, and began to find new love with childhood friend Teddy, played by Liam Hemsworth.

And I was enjoying that film. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Kate Winslet, but she does a fine job as the titular character, and her guarded relationship with Teddy is believable (except maybe for the fact that in real life Winslet is nearly 15 years older than Hemsworth when they are supposed to be classmates here, so that’s a bit strange). Judy Davis plays Tilly’s mother, and she’s spectacular. Her interaction with her daughter is an easy highlight. And the Australian locale gives the film a refreshing flavor that we don’t often see.

I also enjoyed the movie’s mystery. Tilly actually doesn’t know for sure whether she’s guilty of the crimes that the community has judged her for, and her mother is too disconnected from reality in order to tell her the truth. The story of Tilly discovering deeper and deeper layers of truth about her past is well told through the film’s direction and editing. The opening of the film, for example, had me particularly entranced, as Tilly’s arrival is intercut with telling but mysterious quick-cut flashbacks of her past trauma. It effectively whets the appetite for all that is to come.

But just when things are looking their brightest, things take a dark turn, and all the hope that has built up for Tilly is systematically stripped away. At the same time, it seems like fate itself decrees that vengeance is nigh, as Tilly and her mother quite unintentionally (though not necessarily innocently) set into action events that lead to the demise and sometimes brutal death of the film’s biggest villains. And in the final scene of the film, the movie fully embraces its “revenge” theme just as Tilly does her dark role as judge & jury: the movie concludes with her dramatically burning the entire town (though not the people) to the ground.

I found this moral ambiguity a little harder to swallow, or maybe just less interesting. It wasn’t that it didn’t fit the tone of the film up to that point. In fact, the circumstances that were presented made it hard to imagine any other conclusion. But a story about a woman who outgrows and overcomes her past by destroying it without remorse is to me inherently less engaging than one about a woman dealing the burdens of history through less destructive means.

Still, the whole movie holds up for me thanks to the strength of the lead performances, the engaging quality of the film’s mystery, and some strong direction by Jocelyn Moorhouse.

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