The Dressmaker – Jocelyn Moorehouse makes an almost perfect film. (Film review)

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If it is true that there is a crises in film criticism over the way females and female-centric films are judged, and it is, then it is also true that this can be used against male-centric critics when properly assessing those films that are ticket purchase worthy. The Dressmaker is a classic example of this poorly constructed point of mine. It currently labors under a rating of 61% on the anti-register Rotten Tomatoes. Of the 23 criticisms to date, overwhelmingly it is the men who don’t like the film. That’s because of the potent subtext that a Mills and Boon novel has far more in common with Shakespeare (including beautiful writing) than we care to admit. Drama when men do it, belongs to the Gods. Drama when women do it is whiney and officially admonished by Flaubert.  This is a film written by a woman, directed by a woman based on a book by a woman, that is so ferociously from a female perspective, clusters of previously unknown to each other women can be seen speaking in hushed, astonished tones at its conclusion. The Dressmaker is uniquely female and uniquely Australian, a winning combination that hearkens back to the glory days of Muriels Wedding and Strictly Ballroom but with better cinematography and a sharper grasp on the Australian Gothic and the audacity to compare female-centric literature with Shakespeare. In a whole female way it leads us down the familiar path of bad girl made good returns to her small home town to give everyone a makeover, heals wounds, meets hottest man alive, falls in love – and seeks bloody revenge.

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Except inside this, you have to add the cross dressing cop, the drugs, the bloodied twist, the hunchback moralist, South Pacific and The Mikado. The film references Shakespeare, obviously as a precursor to its tumultuous ending, but it might be more appropriate to say it takes the most complex Mills and Boon concept, and after milking it for all its worth, turns it on its head and tosses it out the window. A very strong bow is drawn between the Mills and Boon drama and the Shakespearean tragedy, highlighting a connection I’d never realised but seems immediately obvious in the very clever hands of writer Rosalie Ham. Much of the film is touted as insane, and it is, but Jocelyn Moorehouse is in complete control of the insanity, to the extent that myself and several of the strangers I bonded with after the film all said “have you lived in a small Australian town? Isn’t it exactly like that?” And it is like that. At least it is like that for women. Despite the madcap craziness, and the deep dark horror aspects, the film is entirely familiar, frighteningly striking a deep resounding chord in the heart of the Australian woman.

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It’s darker gothic aspects keep a flawless tone with Australian Gothic history, and reminded me constantly of early Peter Weir of The Cars that Ate Paris and Picnic at hanging Rock ilk. Be prepared for a great deal of tone change, which is not an error as many a journalist has mistaken it for, rather its a deliberate Australian humor that regularly combines dark horror with comic sensibilities, but in a way that makes you feel like you’re the only one who gets the joke. This film is very Australian and very female friendly, which does make it almost impossible for the bulk of the critical audience to understand, but might find its way into your heart if you are one or another of these two audiences. The main plot twist half way through the film is the flawless combination of both and leaves the audience, deliberately torn between crying their eyes out and laughing their lungs up, a perplexing way to toy with emotional response, but a beautiful commentary the passive follow where you lead attitude the audience take too regularly into the cinema. The Dressmaker is a film that will punish you for leaving your brain outside, and the film with fly willingly and happily far over your head leaving you scratching it bloody.

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Indeed the bow drawn by Rosalie Ham and beautifully brought to vibrant life by Jocelyn Moorehouse vibrates around female power and the way it is subdued by chauvinism has many correlations with a classic Shakespearean tragedy including long-term existential inertia, temporary madness and tumultuous revenge. The way clothing is used as a source of power, a power that can be wielded carries a powerful message of strength, even if the film reminds us it’s a superficial strength that wins temporary battles not the true war. The tone changes are typical of theatrical tragedies and are remarkably smooth in The Dressmaker, considering how much takes place in the relatively short time. These are supported by superb performances from a stellar Australian cast headlined by the British with a perfect Aussie accent, Kate Winslet. Everyone is really really good, obviously having a marvelous time, and at home with the unique slant on their character. Of particular note are the brilliant Judy Davis and Hugo Weaving who shine in larger roles, but honestly, everyone is so good. A shout out to Liam Hemsworth who embraces his romance novel role with a pure of heart commitment that never tries to evoke irony or sarcasm, but rather allows the wonderful writing to deal properly with his great character.

And a fast shout out to Donald McAlpine’s cinematography and Marion Boyce’s costume design. The aesthetic pleasures are many in this film, and it is beautiful to look at.

This is such a wonderful film. Try very hard to get to see if you can.

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