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

In this screen adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s bestselling novel, Kate Winslet stars as a seamstress returning to her home town in search of sweet, sweet revenge. But while this comedy-drama is entertaining, and its characters, endearing, Stephanie Van Schilt contends that the film falls short of presenting a rounded protagonist, weakening the retributive drive at the heart of its plot.

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,[i] 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.[ii]

[i]Jodie Bruton, ‘Sue Maslin and Rosalie Ham Team up to Bring The Dressmaker to the Big Screen’, The Border Mail, 21 August 2015, <>, accessed 4 November 2015.

[ii]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, <>, accessed 3 November 2015.


Read more at The Dressmaker.


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