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Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Current Cinema - The Dressmaker

Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker seems to have created some controversy even as it scooted past the $5 million mark in box office receipts by the end of its first week*. There must have been a bit of nervousness around when some low star ratings were handed out by unimpressed reviewers. Still the distributor Universal was undeterred, or at that late stage had no choice but to be undeterred, and opened the film on 384 screens. The film then promptly took over $12k per screen. You have to wonder whether we have another The Castle on our hands.
If your viewing of the film takes place in a suburban multiplex, even a slightly upmarket venue like the Randwick Ritz, and on the film’s second weekend you come into a packed cinema whose denizens then proceed to laugh out loud throughout the movie, feel saddened at a few key funereal moments and are satisfied by the ending you have to wonder whether the film has been perfectly pitched at a local audience. Comedy, we all know, does not play well in preview theatrettes. Of the creators of this extravagant piece of bushwhackery, PJ Hogan has always had a sense of the common touch (which suited American film-making) but in Moorhouse’s case you have to wonder whether the years spent trying to make things happen in the US have been somewhat wasted when this movie, added to Proof, indicates a talent for dissecting local populations inhabiting a satiric version of the Oz backblocks in the 50s that will probably be rewarded again with many AACTA gongs.
The Dressmaker’s comedy takes us all the way back to Dad and Dave – bucolic country hicks have to deal with someone who has picked up the slickness of the city. Her presence revives and peels back the scandals, the hatreds, the vindictiveness, the messy pasts.   The jokes come thick and fast and whatever file subtlety was placed in, it was clearly mislaid. Emblematic of this is Barry Otto’s hunchbacked pharmacist, a caricature so gross as to be something plucked from Murnau.  An odd element is that of the decision to allow Hugo Weaving to speak in his regular Sydney Theatre Company well-rounded and modulated voice. I find it hard to believe that a local copper in the 50s, even one hiding out in the bush to preserve his deep dark secret desires, would talk like that.

If the film reminds me of anything though, it probably is closer than any other movie to the gargoyles that Patrick White created with which to lampoon his native Australians from the comfort of Centennial Park. Now I can't profess to a deep and extensive reading of White. My experience is very  limited and probably has been derived from seeing his plays rather than reading his novels. So I should be treading warily but it seems the influence is most noticeable in the panoply of female characters in The Dressmaker, almost arranged like a Greek chorus around the extravagant central character, played with great aplomb by Kate Winslet and not without a certain sense of derring do. Stars don’t necessarily like jokes being made about their big arses but Winslet has jumped all over the part. And she, along with the rest of the female cast, are brilliantly dressed for the parts.

The only other White adaptations have been the long ago The Night the Prowler (Jim Sharman, Australia, 1978) and the recent The Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi, Australia, 2011). Both of them were artistically disappointing and box office failures. It seems however, that this film, which admittedly only riffs on White, has hit the nail on the head and put up on our very own local screens, all 384 of them, a story that locals at least, find most pungent and very amusing indeed.

(* NB - After the second weekend the film has taken over $8 million,the takings dropped by only 3%, and the screens down by 2. This film might be a phenomena and if the word of mouth is as good as I suspect the film may well play until Christmas and beat Mad Max 4 for the top Box office earner.) 


  1. If the film reminds me of anything, I'd say it's a cross between Love Serenade and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Again, both feature out-of-place characters arriving in a small country town, highlighted by the posh frocks in Priscilla. Grain silos also emerge as a powerful and sinister agent in Love Serenade as well as this film. I wonder if they feature in other Australian stories.
    Critics would find much to worry about in this film (and they have). For my part, I worried about the main character's motivation in returning in the first place. Was it revenge, or to find out the truth? Both it seems - but the two ideas sit uncomfortably together. I was troubled by the unevenness of Judy Davis's character - mumbling and incoherent one moment, sharp and joyful the next. I was distracted by Liam Hemsworth's character apparently living in a caravan with his mother (why? surely there's more to tell here), and he seemed too young, as the town's AFL team captain in the time of the film, to have been Kate Winslet's classmate 25 years ago when she was "sent away" after the awful event that is central to the film's story. But maybe those are all concerns about the original story, and not about the film production - which was superb, both in performances and technical skills (cinematography, editing in particular). In the end, it was thoroughly entertaining, and if that's what it set out to be, then it has succeeded.


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