It’s late at night. A silver bus parks in a deserted town center. A glamorous, well-dressed blonde steps out into the street and places her Singer sewing machine gently down onto the dust to the ominous sound of a bell. Gloved hands take out a cigarette, light it, and put it to red lips. The woman exhales a puff of smoke, glancing at her surroundings with steely determination.
“I’m back, you bastards.”
That’s when I knew that I was going to love this film.
I was predisposed to love it, with its 1950’s glamour and star-studded cast. But that opening moment, filled with an unexpected, snarky twist sets the audience up well for what is to come: a black comedy that moved us to tears and made us jump and gasp at the twists and turns the plot takes (no really, we did).
I happened to watch this film with a group of fellow expats, and all of us have experienced that strange, surreal feeling of returning as a stranger to what was once your home. We expect the questions, even the suspicion. And sometimes, reunions don’t go as we’d planned.
When Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs, The Divergent Series) returns to her hometown of Dungatar, Australia, she expects the raised eyebrows that come. Having been charged with the murder of her classmate (and school bully) at age ten, Tilly was sent away from the town. She eventually made her mark as a seamstress, making her way through the great fashion houses of London, Paris, Milan, and Spain before returning to help her ageing mother. The problem is, she doesn’t remember committing the murder.
Unfortunately, her mother, Molly (Judy Davis, Feud, Marie Antoinette), refuses to acknowledge Tilly as her daughter and puts up a great deal of resistance to Tilly’s insisting presence in her life. At this point, I recommend subtitles; my friends and I couldn’t hear the dialogue over the laughter caused by the two sharing several intense, comedic battles of wills as Tilly seeks her mother’s love and any information she can find out about the infamous murder.
The townspeople soon grow to begrudgingly accept her presence and even seek her services as they discover her transformative powers as a seamstress. The small, dusty town becomes the unlikely backdrop for the women in their original, haute couture creations. Haven’t we all lusted after the clothes we see in Vogue, imagining what version of ourselves we could become with just the right outfit? Tilly manages to make these dreams a reality, that’s part of her magic. But old grudges don’t simply go away with the flick and swish of satin; a new seamstress is hired by the town mayor to come and put Tilly out of business. This attempt falls flat, but the cruelty of the townspeople continues as they refuse to help Tilly discover the truth about her past and insist on treating her like a criminal.
Fortunately, Tilly finds allies in Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving, The Hobbit Trilogy) the local policeman with a penchant for fine fabrics and fashion design, and Teddy (Liam Hemsworth, The Hunger Games Series), a childhood friend who’s taken care of Molly in Tilly’s absence. Together they help Tilly discover clues about her past while leaving her memory irrevocably burned into the memories of her bitter neighbors (I wanted to applaud her dramatic exit while my friends’ reactions were absolutely priceless. Watch it, you’ll see what I mean).
This film, while often tragic, has a streak of dark humor running through it that brings the unexpected and unpredictable with it. I had expected a film with nice clothes and an inspiring story, but what I got was much more. More laughter, more shock, more wonder… more inspiration.
Tilly begins with every disadvantage and still manages to create a masterpiece with her life. She’s a woman that exemplifies strength. The kind that inspires you to keep going, regardless of how bad things get or how few you have on your side. The Dressmaker takes on the difficult circumstances of life with the boldness and ingenuity that inhabit true style, making it a statement piece that will last forever.