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By Sarah Ward
November 10, 2015
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By Sarah Ward
November 10, 2015
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Meet Australian cinema's new heroine. Myrtle 'Tilly' Dunnage (Kate Winslet) wouldn't consider herself a star at anything other than making stunning dresses, nor does she try to conquer anything but her own doubts and cruel small-town gossip. However, she's the guiding force in a film that warmly embraces local flavour, deftly navigates everything from drama to mystery to comedy, and serves up an offbeat, engaging time at the movies.

Tilly is the titular figure in The Dressmaker, which charts her homecoming to outback Australia after being driven away as a child. Scandal surrounds her return, linked to the death of a boy years ago. She can't remember all the details, yet is determined to do whatever it takes to put together the pieces. Her mother, 'Mad' Molly (Judy Davis), isn't much help, and most of the townsfolk barely offer a hello.

Only the handsome, lovelorn Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) and the secretly fashion-conscious Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) give Tilly a warm welcome, until the rest of her neighbours get wind of her winning ways with a sewing machine, that is. Soon, she's transforming the drab populace of housewives and shopkeepers' daughters with Parisian designs — but, as often proves the case in such insular, one-street communities, their newfound politeness can't always be trusted.

If Tilly's scenario sounds like a bit of a mixed bag of figures and genres, that's because it is. The motley crew of characters she's surrounded by includes a stern schoolteacher (Kerry Fox), mean pharmacist (Barry Otto) and more, as played by a who's who of Australian actors (Sarah Snook, Gyton Grantley, Rebecca Gibney, Shane Jacobson, Alison Whyte, Shane Bourne and Sacha Horler among them). Her story flits between romance and revenge, laughs and long-held secrets, and standoffs and tears. Happy moments are followed by sad, with the film's tone veering in several directions.

Thankfully, though, none of this mishmash of elements can be seen as a bad thing. Even when it threatens not to work, it still does — and in quite striking fashion. Skipping between seemingly mismatched parts is what The Dressmaker does best; this is a movie that introduces its lead with the words "I’m back, you bastards," then later has her stop a footy match by showing up in a jaw-dropping outfit, after all. There's always a bit of quirkiness, though not too much, to balance out the darker narrative threads, or some stunning sartorial sights to brighten up the frame, or a sympathetic exchange between Tilly, Teddy and/or Molly to temper the broader strokes of comedy.

Accordingly, it's a fine return to film for writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse — making her first feature since 1997’s A Thousand Acres — who brings Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel of the same name to the screen with verve and then some. It's also a fine return to Australian shores for Winslet, who starred in the locally made Holy Smoke back in 1999, and hasn't lost her gift for our accent.

That's not Winslet's only strength, nor the handsomely shot, 1951-set film's either. She perfects the mix of determined and vulnerable that Tilly radiates— though Davis, Weaving and Hemsworth do their parts, stealing scenes with one-liners, making a supporting player more than comic relief, and oozing allure and emotion respectively. Together, they make for a multifaceted bunch, as does The Dressmaker as a whole. And if the film encourages Australian audiences to see homegrown fare in a cinema — as it should — then it's a champion in its own right, alongside its shining protagonist.

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