You Reap What You Sew: Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker

Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (played by Oscar winner Kate Winslet) steps off the bus at dawn, wielding her Singer sewing machine like a cowboy would a gun. As the spaghetti western–inspired soundtrack jangles, Tilly parts her perfect rouge lips, exhales cigarette smoke and surveys the home town from which she was exiled in disgrace as a ten-year-old. ‘I’m back, you bastards,’ she utters, sending an icy chill over the golden plains and sleeping townsfolk of Dungatar.

The Dressmaker (2015) means business right from its opening sequence. Winslet cuts an undoubtedly striking figure against the quiet, dusty Australian backdrop; a Hollywood icon, she undeniably brings an elegant poise to the role of Tilly insofar as it’s easy, on face value, to mistake The Dressmaker for an international production. But don’t let this poise fool you: this is very much an Australian film, written and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse (who also helmed 1991’s Proof) and co-written by her husband, Muriel’s Wedding (1994) director PJ Hogan.

Long before its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, The Dressmaker had an existence as the debut novel of Australian author Rosalie Ham. When independent publishing house Duffy & Snellgrove released the book at the turn of the millennium, they couldn’t have predicted its success. With its colourful vision of 1950s country life and Ham’s knack for melding an Australian Gothic sensibility with an acerbic wit, the novel immediately appealed to readers and critics alike. At the time of writing, The Dressmaker has reportedly sold over 50,000 copies,[1] a rare feat in the local literary industry. Popular, well-plotted books full of eccentric, shady characters are obviously ripe fodder for filmmakers looking for their next project – and The Dressmaker was no exception. ‘I had ten offers [from producers] on the table within weeks of the book coming out,’ Ham told audiences during a panel at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival.[2]

Considering how the novel is so besotted with ideas of fairness and fate, sorcery and skill, the serendipitous way in which the movie came about is an intriguing narrative unto itself. After a number of enthusiastic false starts, local producer Sue Maslin, an ardent fan of the book, secured the film rights. It was by happenstance that Maslin realised she had grown up with Ham in regional New South Wales in a town not too different from The Dressmaker’s fictional Dungatar. Deeply invested in the project, Maslin had a particular vision in mind for Ham’s ‘unusual’ novel – one that involved doggedly pursuing, and eventually convincing, Moorhouse to come on as director. ‘As soon as I read the book,’ Maslin recounts,

what I’d really, really hoped for was a movie experience that would just be really, really entertaining, that would take audiences on that ride where they could laugh, they could cry, they could be horrified, they could be excited […] just a big, fat movie experience.[3]

Accordingly, Moorhouse and Hogan co-wrote the adapted screenplay, adding their signature flair to an otherwise unimaginable, and somewhat indescribable, comedy-drama film.

It would be irresponsible to encourage viewers to approach The Dressmaker only in relation to its fidelity to the book – something reminiscent of a tabloid magazine’s ‘Who wore it better?’ assessment. Adaptation is, in Anthony Burgess’ words, ‘the verbal shadow turned into light, the word made flesh’[4] and, in some ways, the strange tone of Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker is consistent with Ham’s unconventional written work. However, by its very form, a book has the ability to flesh out characters, explore narrative arcs and move seamlessly between genres – and all of these are sometimes translated clunkily during the leap from book to big screen.

Much like in the novel, the film has Tilly return to Dungatar to help her ailing, alcoholic mother (Judy Davis), dubbed ‘Mad Molly’ by the inhabitants of the town. Molly was driven to insanity long ago by heartbreak when her daughter was sent away, blamed for the death of a young boy. The judgey townspeople – played by a host of well-known Australian actors including Rebecca Gibney, Shane Jacobson, Hugo Weaving and rising star Sarah Snook – don’t hide their disdain upon Tilly’s homecoming, continuing to mark her a mysterious murderess. After cleaning up her mother and their family home – ironically perched on the hill overlooking the town, their every move watched by the nosy neighbourhood – Tilly finds love with fellow outsider and boy-next-door Teddy (played by Hollywood heartthrob Liam Hemsworth). This romance, however, ends tragically during the film’s climax with his untimely, accidental death. Meanwhile, Tilly’s talents as a well-travelled dressmaker see her give Dungatar a makeover with Parisian-inspired outfits that infuse the sepia town with colour and life.

The film diverges from the book in terms of the protagonist’s character development: whereas Ham presents a feisty, talented dressmaker who understands the incidental part she played in the death of young Stewart Pettyman (portrayed in the film by Rory Potter) and is equipped with the knowledge of her paternity (she is the lovechild of local councillor and resident bad guy Evan Pettyman, played with patented sleaze by Shane Bourne), Moorhouse and Hogan’s screen adaptation withholds both pieces information from Tilly and the audience. To establish a central mystery, the filmmakers’ vision of Tilly hinges on the use of post-traumatic amnesia as a plot device. Through flashbacks and the helping hand of Teddy, Tilly is relieved of the initial guilt that she was responsible for Stewart’s death and, through her investigative prowess, discovers the devastating truth of her paternity.

In both texts, the relationship between mother and daughter is perhaps the most engaging dynamic at play. Molly and Tilly

While Ham’s experience as an aged-care worker lends insight into the extreme responsibilities and harsh consequences dealt to people in situations such as Tilly’s, the brilliance of Winslet and, in particular, Davis makes their scenes together some of the strongest in The Dressmaker; Davis has an uncanny ability to deliver stinging lines with tragic undertones and jovial majesty. Weaving’s performance as Dungatar’s cross-dressing, couture-loving Sergeant Farrat – who, along with Teddy, becomes Tilly’s ally – is also comedic and touching in its prescribed hyperbole.

These outstanding performances – Winslet’s Aussie drawl deserves note – as well as twelve AACTA nominations[5] and the novel’s already established readership (bolstered by the re-release of Ham’s book as a movie tie-in across over sixteen territories[6]) have undoubtedly helped bring in solid ticket sales: the film made A$3.16 million on its opening weekend, topping the local box office.[7] But The Dressmaker, like any screen work, must be appraised beyond marketing, familiar faces, ticket sales and promotional stickers on book covers.

It would be lazy to assume that the female-centric, costume-focused period elements of The Dressmaker mean it automatically sits with the grand era of Australian adaptations of the 1970s. In fact, Moorhouse’s film has far more in common with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of Desert (Stephan Elliot, 1994) than Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) or My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979) – and not just because of the presence of Weaving in the cast. For better or worse, Moorhouse and Hogan have imprinted their authorial stamp on their filmic interpretation of The Dressmaker, embodying an allegiance to the ‘quirkier’ sensibilities of the latter’s successful vehicle Muriel’s Wedding. As critic Glenn Dunks attests:

The Dressmaker wouldn’t have been out of place in the rash comedies of the 1990s; it revels in a distinctly Australian form of comedy that is as unrepentantly daggy as it is proudly grotesque and boastfully Aussie-centric, full of thick accents and inside Aussie-isms.[8]

Certainly, moments of slapstick involving the slut-shaming hunchback pharmacist (Barry Otto) being pushed around town, or Evan and his mistress Una Pleasance (Sacha Horler) getting busted fooling around, are developed with a deftness that stays true to Ham’s dark humour. But the way The Dressmaker adopts filmic conventions to drive the hammy gags home is to the detriment of character and subplot development. Broad sweeping caricatures diminish the potency of Ham’s narrative – for instance, the superficial She’s All That (Robert Iscove, 1999) storyline that sees bitter shopgirl Gertrude (played by Snook) made over by Tilly to win the heart of a local boy lacks lustre.

In contrast, the brilliant costume design by Marion Boyce, who has worked on the likes of stylish Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, adds a glamorous aesthetic otherwise only seen in the high-camp works of Baz Luhrmann. However, the handling of Tilly’s dressmaking talent (repeatedly described in the book as a form of witchcraft, with her house even stoned at one point) and the lifelong series of misfortunes she endures (minimised in the movie as a ‘curse’ and with a few throwaway lines about the loss of her own child) give the film an overall sense of cartoonishness that undercuts its central tragedy as well as the themes of revenge and the narrow-mindedness of small-town life. This is a deliberate ploy on behalf of the filmmakers: Moorhouse explains that ‘[i]t was [her] intention for [the film] to have a fable quality – a mean little town with a secret tries to ward off this avenging angel who descends on them’,[9] and the set was eventually constructed near the You Yangs in Victoria. Moorhouse’s vision for a ‘magical realism Spaghetti Western’ is successfully conjured by some genuinely majestic cinematography by Donald McAlpine, which includes sweeping shots of linear golden fields. As critic Rochelle Siemienowicz describes, these images are ‘like an artist’s cartoon version of Australian agriculture’.[10]

But the ploy becomes problematic when the motivation behind the vengeance Tilly seeks, alluded to in opening sequence, feels weak. While, in Ham’s text, the switch isn’t triggered until the final pages and the denouement feels somewhat rushed, it is explicable: Tilly has been berated; she’s heartbroken, alone and exhausted. The way this operates in the film, however, seems to intimate a nonchalant relationship between The Dressmaker and the subgenre of feminist revenge films. It is exceptionally liberating to watch Tilly set Dungatar ablaze during the film’s closing sequence, strutting to the beat of her own unflinching walk (a standard masculine action-movie trope) as she exits town, and prevailing over those who have hurt her. In this rendition of the story, however, there is little impetus for her to be so extreme. Ham’s book foreshadows this incident with a number of allusions to fire – including a segment in which Molly and Tilly are being ‘smoked out’ by a tip-fire, aided by the townsfolk – but the film feels as though it’s attempting to the infuse the plot with vengeful charge, rather than successfully providing one.

It’s strangely paradoxical that the exact traits that make Ham’s text unique – the unconventional plotting, the melange of genres, the host of wacky characters, the outcast central figure – mirror the very reasons the work of Moorhouse and Hogan feels individual. While emblazoned with different authorial stamps, both the book and the film are as idiosyncratic as they are erratically fun in their own way. Moorhouse has warned audiences to ‘expect the unexpected’[11] from The Dressmaker, she’s not wrong; it might not be as neat as the novel, but it’s likewise riot nonetheless.

Bette Midler once said, ‘Give a girl the correct footwear and she can conquer the world.’[12] The film adaptation of The Dressmaker seems to argue that, if you give a woman the right sewing machine, she can conquer her home town and (quite literally) burn it down – the final outcome isn’t exactly seamless, but it sure looks good. 

Endnotes

[1]Jodie Bruton, ‘Sue Maslin and Rosalie Ham Team up to Bring The Dressmaker to the Big Screen’, The Border Mail, 21 August 2015, <http://www.bordermail.com.au/story/3294934/tailor-made-story-fits/>, accessed 4 November 2015.

[2]Rosalie Ham, quoted in Mark Poole, ‘Books at MIFF: How The Dressmaker Was Adapted into a Film Starring Kate Winslet’, The Conversation, 31 July 2015, <http://theconversation.com/books-at-miff-how-the-dressmaker-was-adapted-into-a-film-starring-kate-winslet-45376>, accessed 3 November 2015.

[3]Sue Maslin, quoted in Steve Newall, ‘Interview: The Dressmaker Producer Sue Maslin’, Fliks.com.au, 20 October 2015, <http://www.fliks.com.au/blog/amazing-interviews/interview-the-dressmaker-producer-sue-maslin-2/>, accessed 3 November 2015.

[4]Anthony Burgess, ‘On the Hopelessness of Turning Good Books into Films’, The New York Times, 20 April 1975.

[5]See Don Groves, ‘The Dressmaker Leads AACTA Awards Noms’, IF.com.au, 29 October 2015, <http://if.com.au/2015/10/28/article/The-Dressmaker-leads-AACTA-Awards-noms/EIEHPTFHWC.html>, accessed 3 November 2015.

[6]Poole, op. cit.

[7]Garry Maddox, ‘The Dressmaker’s Successful Opening Prompts Call for More Films About Women’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 November 2015, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/the-dressmakers-successful-opening-prompts-call-for-more-films-about-women-20151102-gkot42.html>, accessed 3 November 2015.

[8]Glenn Dunks, ‘Review: The Dressmaker Is an Unexpected Return to the Glory Days of Australian Comedy’, Junkee, 28 October 2015, <http://junkee.com/review-the-dressmaker-is-an-unexpected-return-to-the-glory-days-of-australian-comedy1/68231>, accessed 3 November 2015.

[9]Jocelyn Moorhouse, quoted in NIXCo, ‘From Page to Screen’, The Dressmaker press kit, 2015, p. 6.

[10]Rochelle Siemienowicz, ‘The Dressmaker Review: Haughty Couture Revenge Fable Is Daft Fun’, SBS Movies, 16 September 2015, <http://www.sbs.com.au/movies/review/dressmaker-review-haughty-couture-revenge-fable-daft-fun>, accessed 3 November 2015.

[11]Jocelyn Moorhouse, quoted in Monique Ross, ‘The Dressmaker: Director Jocelyn Delves into Film’s Western Influences, Says Working with Kate Winslet Was “Beautiful”’, ABC News, 23 October 2015, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-23/dressmaker-director-jocelyn-moorhouse-talks-about-film/6875302>, accessed 3 November 2015.

[12]Bette Midler, quoted in ‘Now for the Courtship Strut – Spike Heels Teeter Back’, The Straits Times, 22 September 1985, p. 3.

Originally published in Metro Magazine Issue 187 (2016).