Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Dressmaker (2015) - Movie Review

I hate the term ‘chick flick’. Like, really hate the term. Not only does it bank on the idea that women only want a very select number of elements in their entertainment, which is pretty damn regressive, but it is also primarily used as a put-down by critics, as if what women presumably want to watch is something to inherently be ashamed of. I’ve discussed films that fit into this category before, specifically romantic shlock like The Best Of Me, but it seems like the term really doesn’t have much reason to be used nowadays. I’ll wait until the release of the Expendabelles before I feel the need for any official eulogy for the term, but gender shouldn’t qualify as a defining factor when it comes to what film is meant to interest a person. Or maybe this is just my fence-sitting naivety shining through once again, I don’t know. Anyway, I bring this all up because this film supposedly counts as a chick flick. I say "supposedly" because I’m still not entirely sure who this film is meant to appeal to, if anyone at all.

The plot: Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns home to the rural town of Dungatar, after a childhood incident involving a boy’s death forced her to leave. While trying to restore her relationship with her mother Molly (Judy Davis), she starts making couture dresses for the town’s residents and bides her time until she can take revenge on the townsfolk for what they did to her.

As soon as the film starts, it becomes immediately obvious that these filmmakers are not messing around. This is an absolutely gorgeous film, with some very striking and effective cinematography by Moorhouse/Hogan regular Donald McAlpine. It’s that good to the point where I was impressed just from the opening credits; not since Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has a film been able to do that. From then on, between the darkly tinged flashback sequences to the picturesque framing of the actors in their new attire, the film’s production quality stays at an impressive high considering it takes place in a dusty outback town. Also, this is a film called The Dressmaker; it’d be a tad redundant to bring up that the costuming is really good, but I will nevertheless because I want to bring up the positives where I can see them.

This is a cast stocked with either actors that people are already really familiar with, or actors that people should get familiar with. Kate Winslet is grace personified as Myrtle who, despite losing some of her edge during the third act, balances European dignity and Outback earthiness well. Once again, I find myself glad to see Sarah Snook getting more acting more and, also once again, I find myself disappointed that she has yet to match her work in Predestination. Seriously, I know I keep bringing it up, but I think I ruined it for myself by starting there because she is absolutely phenomenal in that movie; go see it if you haven’t already. However, my now-annoyingly-standard disappointment is somewhat tempered by the fact that the actor original meant to play her role, that of Tilly’s old classmate Gertrude Pratt, was Isla Fisher. Given how much that woman has come to piss me right off over the last year, thanks to some particularly annoying "Phones Off" ads she’s been doing for my local cinema chain, that could’ve tipped me right over the edge and made me walk out; no joke. All things considered, she does a good job.

Despite Liam Hemsworth being a little too young to be playing Winslet’s romantic interest (the age thing is a problem with Snook as well), he is rather charming and manages to make for one of the few times where using beefcake for marketing has been excusable; seriously, even I’d kill to get abs like that. However, the big stand-outs are Davis and Hugo Weaving as Sergeant Farrat. Davis is rather over-the-top but manages to squeeze out some pathos in a few key scenes and pretty much carries the entire film with how much fun she’s having in the role. Watching her in a cinema playing Sunset Boulevard, despite it bringing back memories of some of the more annoying movie-goers I’ve shared movie sessions with, still made for the funniest scene in the film. Weaving seems to be channelling every ounce of Priscilla he has left in him, as he makes for a very flamboyant but likeable presence on screen. Beyond all those mentioned, this is full of well-known Aussie names both past and present: Barry Otto, Kerry Fox, Shane Bourne, Rebecca Gibney, Shane Jacobson and Alison Whyte, just to name a few. They waver a bit between decent and pantomime, but they fulfil their respective roles nonetheless.

The writing is… I don’t even know where to start with this script; it’s just that ridiculous. Well, how about the fact that this is one of the most tonally schizophrenic sits I’ve had in quite some time? When it sticks to the idea of Tilly taking revenge, it leads to some very powerful moments and imagery, but for the rest of the time it regresses to soap opera antics and ham servings for all. Seriously, nearly every plot point in this film has probably been used in The Bold And The Beautiful's egregiously long run, right down to the convenient amnesia both Tilly and Molly have about the initial death. I’d be fine with this either being a dark revenge flick or a light and frothy farce, but these aren’t exactly two great tastes that go great together, especially as they are presented here.

As the film starts, it hints that maybe Tilly is going to turn the town against each other; take advantage of their own dark secrets, i.e. the adulterous rapist of a mayor the town has. Then it proceeds to throw all that away in exchange for fairy tale transformative clap-trap involving how much a dress can change a person, in easily the most superficial thing I’ve seen all year, and an actual fashion war between her and another seamstress. In the hands of a better writer, this could have all been reconciled into a decent plot; unfortunately, it’s not just the tone that’s inconsistent about this film. Characters will just shift allegiances for ill-explained reasons, like Gertrude all of a sudden siding with the rest of the town.

The plot doesn’t seem to know what direction to take, be it concerning the revenge plot, the romantic plot, the familial bond plot; even when they finally decide to start revenging, it’s being done for painfully contrived reasons. There is literally no reason for the town to turn on her the way they do, forcing almost everyone to act out of character by the turn of the third act. Hell, the revenge itself is poorly handled, as it is never really clear what Tilly’s plan was to begin with and, once it comes to fruition, you’d think that she just put together on the spot.

I have repeatedly been an advocate for seeing certain films for less-than-genuine reasons, be it because of awful acting, writing, directing or all of the above. This feels like it was cut from a similar cloth… ugh, I hate when my writing gets that cliché but if the shoe fits… oh goddammit! Look, bottom line is, I keep getting the feeling that this is salvageable along the same lines: Watching it because of how bad it is. However, there is something holding it back from even being that good, and that would have to be the entire third act. Up until that point, the film engages in the kind of prat fall antics that would make the Three Stooges attack each other from beyond the grave; it’s chaotic, nonsensical and more than a little dumb, but it’s almost worth it for the train wreck itself.

Then the third act hits, and any and all sense of fun is thrown clear out the outhouse window. The mood grows increasingly dour, events start occurring purely to add more unnatural drama to the proceedings, and it kind of ends up becoming what the film should have been from the beginning: A rather dark bit of revenge fantasy. Unfortunately, by the time we get it, it is near impossible to take seriously, not to mention absurd. It’s kind of difficult to accept the drama at face value when the film has spent so much time acting out Baz Luhrmann’s wet dreams.

All in all, this was described by director/co-writer Jocelyn Moorhouse as “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine”; that’s pretty much all the information you need on how wacko-jacko this whole affair turns out. As a result of being unable to properly decide what tone it wants to go for, and spending the majority of its running time acting like a comedic silent film that someone forget to take the audio out of, the film is a complete mess. This film is undoubtedly well made and the acting manages to at least keep up with whatever is decided for a given scene, and even gets to the point of carrying the film thanks to actors like Davis and Weaving, but it just ends up making for a pretty picture of a burning wreck. For the more jocular of my readers, I give a hesitant recommendation for camp value, but otherwise I’d wait for the right gang of riffers before checking this out.

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