The Dressmaker: Everything Wrong with Australian Films

The Dressmaker is one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had in the cinema.  It’s rare that a movie makes me this fundamentally outraged. It may be a critical and financial success but for me, The Dressmaker is an example of everything wrong with the Australian film industry. I know I’m in a minority here. I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this. And that’s fine, everyone likes different things. It’s not about whether you like or dislike a movie/TV show/anything. What matters is how well you can explain your reasons.

Based on the popular 2000 novel by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker tells the story of Tilly Dunnage, a talented dressmaker who returns to her childhood town to care for her mentally unstable mother. However, at the age of 10, Tilly was accused of murdering a local boy and was sent away. For some reason, Tilly can’t remember anything about the alleged incident and seeks both answers and revenge.
It’s one of the most successful Australian films. But that does not a good movie make. At least for my taste. It’s not like there’s an abundance of Australian films to begin with, and even less that are actually good. The only Australian films I like are The Castle, The Black Balloon, Gallipoli and Strictly Ballroom. Harsh? Maybe, but I can’t force myself to like something, and as a critic, I certainly can’t overlook such glaring flaws.

Rest assured, I am going to add as many spoilers as humanly possible. Fair warning to those who want to see it. And if you think the movie is a masterpiece, I advise you to stop reading. I don’t want to ruin anything for you. Also, I’m going on record here by saying I have not read the original novel. I didn’t even know it was a novel. It’s quite rare for me to see a movie without having read the book, but here we are. Frankly, I’m going to make sure I don’t read the book. That’s how much I disliked the movie.
I could write an essay here, but to spare my sanity and yours, here’s 4 reasons why I don’t like The Dressmaker.

checklist

Hollywood has checklists for cliches. I can have them too.

1. It’s miserable and unpleasant

What could be more uplifting than a false accusation of murder, rape, infidelity, abuse and revenge?
As I said, it’s a revenge film (poorly executed, but I’ll get to that later). The problem is that it’s in the guise of a comedy, and there is little comedy in this. This is a thoroughly unpleasant, depressing, mean-spirited movie.
From the minute Tilly enters, she’s hated by the town, and it seems like that was the case her whole life. Her mother isn’t exactly a bundle of joy either. Tilly was subjected to terrible bullying as a child from both school and adults alike. She was sent away, she’s treated with suspicion and nobody is interested in her side of the story. And just when it seems like something nice might FINALLY happen to our main character, the movie douses it with petrol and sets it alight while cackling madly. She just never gets a break. It’s exhausting, depressing and downright nasty. The movie was hell bent on making Tilly suffer as much as possible.
To give a better idea of what I’m talking about,  let’s look at another “classic” Australian film. Muriel’s Wedding.

Murielswedding.jpg

Take off the rose tinted glasses for a minute and hear me out.

Muriel’s Wedding is touted as a ‘feel-good’ movie.

How?!?

When, at any point in the movie, is this a ‘feel-good’ flick? Point to me that moment. Is it when Muriel is arrested on a false accusation someone made out of spite? Is it when she steals money from her family and goes on holiday to Bali? Then runs away? When her ‘friends’ disown her? How about her abusive father telling his family they’re all useless? Oh, I know. It must be when her best friend gets cancer and loses the ability to walk. Or when her dad has an affair and drives their browbeaten mother to suicide!
You beginning to see what I mean here? Adding all this violence (physical, emotional etc) is not going to make us feel more sympathy for the main character. Especially if, like Muriel’s Wedding, the main character is a pretty horrible person herself. Muriel lies, steals, manipulates and abandons people just to get what she wants. Sure, she’s horribly abused by people but that doesn’t give her the right to behave the way she does. There’s far better ways of dealing with things like this.
So right from the outset, we have a movie that delights in suffering, for the pleasure of the audience and other characters. That’s such a great foundation to lay a film on.

 

2. It makes no sense

What was the focus of this movie? What was the driving point? The love story? The truth about this murder? Revenge? Dressmaking? Small towns? The relationship between Tilly and her mother? How much I’m supposed to hate these characters?
Why can’t Tilly remember what really happened when Stewart Pettyman died? Who forgets the circumstances of a death which you’re accused of being responsible for?!?!?
How had Stewart Pettyman’s mother never heard that Tilly was supposedly the one who killed her son???? If the town is so malicious, why is Tilly’s mother Molly still there? And that deus ex machina plot point about Teddy’s mentally unstable brother somehow being a witness to the death but nobody ever mentioned it? He never said anything? And once he is revealed as an eyewitness and the other witness was lying, they do precisely NOTHING with this information. They don’t tell anyone, it’s never resolved, she’s never exonerated, nothing. Just a completely stupid sex scene. There was also no reason to kill off Teddy. Or Tilly’s mother for that matter. It was just more ways to ensure Tilly was downtrodden even further.
By the way, if Teddy was so smart, who jumps into a silo after a delivery? Stupid thing to do.
Whoever wrote this needs a high five. In the face. With a crowbar.

3. The characters are terrible

It’s bad enough that the story is sheer misery. They didn’t need to go so far as to make characters with no personality outside of being the worst human beings in the world. This was a who’s who of great Australian talent and none were utilised to their full potential.
With the exception of Tilly (mainly due to Kate Winslet’s performance), I hated these characters. They had little to no redeeming qualities and other than that were cliched as hell.
You have Gertrude Pratt, the town’s ugly duckling who is in love with someone who’s way out of her league. Sheesh, haven’t seen that in a zillion other movies and TV shows.

She gets the cliche of having a makeover, suddenly becomes the belle of the ball, is immediately engaged to him and with no transition whatsoever, becomes a complete and utter stuck up maniac. She had no transition and the flimsiest of excuses for existing in the first place.
Then you have the great Barry Otto as the loathsome chemist. He’s cruel to Tilly as a child and behaves in a downright sadistic manner while Molly dies in pain from a stroke.  And technically, Tilly is responsible for him drowning. Great. We’re supposed to think she’s innocent and mistreated but there you go. There’s no reason for this chemist to exist apart from being another despicable character.
Hugo Weaving is having a lot of fun as the cross dressing sergeant, but what cop could be bribed with a damn feather boa to reveal secret witness statements???
Evan Pettyman is probably the character I despised the most in the entire mess however. Shane Bourne gives a good performance but this character was just so thoroughly unlikeable he was DOA. This is a man who sleeps with every woman he sees, while drugging his wife Marigold and raping her while she’s unconscious. He’s also suddenly revealed as Tilly’s father. Ugh.
Of course, Marigold eventually discovers her husband’s affairs thanks to Tilly. What follows is a horrifying scene where she slices his Achilles’ tendons with a butcher knife and leaves him to bleed to death. This disturbing act is portrayed as both triumphant and somewhat comedic. And I am absolutely not ok with that.
Both genders were given a disservice here. The men were cheating scumbags and the women were gold-digging harpies. Teddy was the only character with a likeable personality but let’s face it, he was just eye candy and because they killed him off, anything remotely pleasant vanished from the movie.

4. There’s no message or reason for it to exist

As I said before, this is an incredibly dark movie. And on the surface, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with dark themes. Australian theatre is full of them. Look at The Boys by Gordon Graham. If you don’t know, it’s a highly fictionalised play about the brutal 1986 murder of Sydney nurse Anita Cobby. The Boys is hard hitting, raw and violent, but it’s all done through the writing and characters. No crime is committed on stage. But the reason The Boys works is because there is a definite message. It’s anti-violence, and explores the reasons behind crimes and mob mentality. Because the play is told through the eyes of the women (the mother and girlfriends of the boys), the audience is pulled into the drama and urgency, leaving with deep questions about violence and the cause of anger and hate. Blackrock, also about the real life murder of teenager Leigh Leigh, ponders the responsibility of a community and the reactions to a crime. Radiance talks about rejection, history and family. Look at international works such as Spring Awakening. That deals with rape, homosexuality, abortion, death, suicide, teenage self-discovery, sado-masochism and all to show the consequences of improper communication and not being honest with teens about sex. None of these plays, and a list of others, are sunshine and roses. But again, the darkness has purpose. The violence and confronting themes are to make a point. To say something worthwhile. The Dressmaker does not do this. There was no message here. No attempt to make this a better world. The movie is essentially saying that revenge is the way to handle things. That murder and arson are completely justified if you feel so inclined. That is where I draw the line.
Allow me to use a line from Batman Begins.

batman-begins-2005-62-g.jpg

Because Batman is awesome

“Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about making yourself feel better,”

Tilly’s revenge solved nothing. It just created a whole world of anger and suffering. Like the movie did to me!

I know a lot of people like this movie but I’m sorry. I just think it’s horrendous. As an artist, I am mortified that this is the calibre of films Australia continues to produce.
The reason films like Gallipoli, The Castle and The Black Balloon are good films is because they’re about real people and real issues. The Kerrigans in The Castle are a loving family, though slightly off-beat, and they’re fighting for their home. Gallipoli shows the tragedy of WWI by making us connect to these characters as real humans. The Black Balloon touches on the rarely explored issue of mental disabilities and the effects on people.
Instead of being an interesting story of discovering the truth and righting what is wrong, The Dressmaker just shows that violence is justified if people wrong you. The characters are stereotypes and like I said, it’s surprisingly unfocused and mean spirited. I give the actors credit for their performances but it felt like their talent was going to waste.
This could have been a good movie. This could have been a unique and touching film about a young woman reconnecting with her mother after a troubled childhood. But it was a bloody mess.

This is what’s wrong with Australian film. There are few outlets for artists to utilise their abilities effectively. There’s very little funding or resources and as a result, our film industry is almost non-existent, and the quality of movies are nowhere near the quality they could be. Most movies are stereotypes, unsavoury and not very well written. But because they’re Australian, we’re expected to love them no matter their flaws.

The Australian film industry deserves so much more. But as long as the funding is locked away and talented filmmakers are denied resources in favour of movies like The Dressmaker, it will continue to suffer.

20 thoughts on “The Dressmaker: Everything Wrong with Australian Films

  1. O.R. Melling

    I agree with everything you say here and yet I loved the film, I think because I simply accepted it on its own terms, i.e. over-the-top daft black comedy with a dash of spaghetti western. Certainly the most outrageous and unacceptable plot point was Teddy’s death. He’s been jumping into that silo all his life, you bet he knows when there is and isn’t sorghum in there. Even his “slow brother” knew you didn’t jump in the sorghum! But you didn’t mention one of my own objections which is where are the aboriginal people? Are there really out of the way places in Australia with only white people in it? All that said, it was a fantastical romp not to be taken seriously. Oh and you didn’t mention Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which Hugo Weaving also starred in? Did you not like it either? I loved it …

    Reply
    1. AbStar921 Post author

      I feel like the film didn’t know what it wanted to be or say. It just became a giant unpleasant mess to me.
      As for Priscilla Queen of the Desert, I actually haven’t seen it.
      The only reason for teddy to die was to add more misery. I wanted to throw something at the screen. It was so stupid!
      And yes, the lack of Aboriginal people had me rolling my eyes. But I think that was also the case in the novel, so maybe they were just being faithful to the source material.

      Reply
  2. Martin, from Münster, Germany

    So, how many Australian films have you seen? I’m from Germany. I have seen well over 600 Australian films, and quite frankly, I think you are wrong. Australian films, on average, are of the same quality, if not better, than American independent films. There is of course the occasional absolute turd – Reckless Kelly, Blurred, Ned, A Heartbeat Away (you’re right on that one), and some very low budget horror films – but in relation to the total output the number of bad films is not higher than in the US, UK, or Germany for that matter (and it has to be mentioned that government subsidies for the local film industry in Germany are way higher than in Australia. Lantana was made partly with German money). I could look at the Australian box office charts any week of the year and, based on what I see, write a long and well-reasoned article about what is wrong with the Australian cinema audience. There are often absolute stinkers there which sometimes equal the total box office of Australian films for a whole year. The worst thing that can happen is when Australians are given a truckload of money by an American studio and try to emulate Hollywood junk. Then you get Gods of Egypt. Heaven forbid that an Australian is allowed to make such a movie ever again. I would take “artsy films about suburban junkies” (the dismissive generalization used by the Australian popcorn movie generation for the whole of the Australian film industry) over films like that any day. Not many of the > 600 films that I have seen fit that description, by the way. The main problem for Australian films is not qualtity, but the small market and (self-inflicted) lack of distribution channels. I could pull my hair out over the fact that there is no (legal) streaming service which offers Australian content to a European audience. When I have to import dvds from Australia, often the shipping costs are way higher than the price of the dvd alone. (Thanks Umbrella Entertainment for offering dirt-cheap dvds of Australian films).

    As for The Dressmaker, anyone in my German family liked it. On Amazon.de the movie has an average 4.5 out of 5 rating by a German audience. People who harbour no general “cultural cringe” towards Australian films love this one. So, your opinion is just that, an opinion, and your personal problem, and not a problem of the Australian film industry. The Babadook (another fine Australian film) made 1.1 million Euro in Germany, that is roughly six times the Australian box office. I have no idea what you expect from your local films, and why you don’t dig them, but I guess the lack of appreciation for Australian content Down Under derives from the same (unjustified) feeling of self-loathing that Germans often feel about their own country(men).

    The lack of Aboriginal people made you roll your eyes? That is interesting. Most Australians I have heard making statements about Australian films cringe at the alleged “quota systems” at Australian film funding boards for Australian content. I have seen about sixty films with Aboriginal actors. About ten percent of all the films I have seen so far. Seems a fair quota to me, given the percentage they make up in the total population. I find the idea of an enforced quota ridiculous. Which part would you give to an Aboriginal person in Bright Star or Moulin Rouge? The Mad Max franchise, though, could be criticized in this regard. But if it’s not in the novel, do not force it in just because of a rigid quota system.

    Btw: Watch Priscilla. Aboriginal people included. How can you be generalizing about Australian cinema (and call yourself a critic) if you haven’t even seen some of the most seminal films?

    Here is a list of other films I have seen involving Aboriginal actors. Actually some Aboriginal appearances really do feel like the result of an enforced quota, but that’s ok as long as it does not feel completely out of place. Australia today has more probably more people of German than of Aboriginal descent, and I swear I cannot remember even one of the 600 movies involving a character of German descent (except for Cate Shortland’s Lore, but that one does not count). I guess the ancestries of a Ludwig Leichhardt or a Kate Miller-Heidke are not that important to Australians.

    The list:
    Around the Block, Australia, Australian Rules, Beneath Clouds, Bitter Springs, Black and White, Bran Nue Dae, Clowning Around, Crocodile Dundee (all three films), Dark Age, Dead Heart, Dear Claudia, Eliza Fraser, Frog Dreaming, Ground Zero, Jedda, Jindabyne, Journey Among Women, Kadaicha, Kiss or Kill, Lantana, Look Both Ways, Mad Dog Morgan, Mental, Mystery Road, Ned Kelly, One Night the Moon, Opal Dream, Oscar and Lucinda, Paper Planes, Quigley, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Red Hill, Robbery Under Arms, Samson & Delilah, Somersault, Stone Bros., Storm Boy, Ten Canoes, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The Dreaming, The Fringe Dwellers, The Last Wave, The Monkey’s Mask, The Proposition, The Sapphires, The Tracker, Toomelah, Until the End of the World, Walkabout, We of the Never Never, Where the Green Ants Dream, Wyrmwood, Yolngu Boy, and even Young Einstein (yuck).

    Reply
    1. AbStar921 Post author

      You can disagree with me. That is fine. I wouldn’t say there’s any self-loathing about my country.
      What I do loathe is the lack of funding and freedom for our arts industry. I played a supporting role in an independent Australian film which is on the brink of release. The lack of funding, tiny amounts you can barely gain access to, the continued importing of Broadway/West End stars to productions because the Imported Artist agreement was never renewed, the fact that you can find count the number of successful Australian musicals on your fingers, how nearly every production brought out here has to be an exact replica, that our films are filled with stereotypes and bad humour, it just makes me sick. I’ve seen a good amount of Australian films. Add The Water Diviner and Rabbit Proof Fence to my list of good ones. Our industry could be so much more. But it’s not allowed to be because sport is king in this country and the arts are not seen as profitable.
      Just because audiences like a movie doesn’t necessarily make is a good film. I’ll say it again, The Dressmaker was too misguided in its purpose, it’s themes and story. It didn’t know what it wanted to be and the characters were hopelessly underdeveloped.
      As for the Aboriginal thing, it would have been nice to see a bit of multiculturalism in the movie. Or anything else apart from the hateful stereotypes I saw.
      Please feel free to like the movie. And by all means explore more of our limited film/tv industry. Independant theatre is on the rise and thriving here in Sydney. Maybe one day our arts industry will get the recognition and cash flow it so desperately deserves and needs and we’ll finally see all that it is capable of.

      Reply
      1. Martin, from Münster, Germany

        I really hope to see you once in an Australian film, Abbie!
        Maybe even in a tragicomedy – that’s the genre in literature or film that usually meanders between comic and tragic elements and does not know where it wants to go, as in Muriel’s Wedding or The Dressmaker. I really wonder what constitutes a good movie, if not the predominant audience reaction. Maybe comedy-drama is just not your cup of tea, but I think it is one genre where Australians are really good at. Love Serenade and Bliss are my favourite examples. I like my stories with conflicts, and I certainly like dark themes. Movies with all-fluffy fabrics make me lose interest soon. Watch a movie like Centre Place and you will know what I mean. No, please don’t, really.

        I found The Water Diviner to be an ok film, but nothing outstanding. Films of the last years that really got me were Noise, Tracks, Animal Kingdom, Candy (oh no, drugs!), In Her Skin, Predestination, and The Little Death. Nothing fluffy there.

        Looking forward to seeing you on the big screen. I hope you don’t get killed in the first few minutes of a Wolf Creek sequel, though.

  3. AbStar921 Post author

    The film I did is an independant horror film called Straight Cut. It’s on the brink of release. I didn’t have a death scene so don’t worry 😛

    Reply
  4. Justina

    Replying only to the “it makes no sense” part (sorry, didn’t feel like going through the whole post). I’m basing whole answer on the movie, I bet in the books events are described in a better way, so I might interpret it wrong.
    But, first of all, easy part – yes, it is possible to forget about such traumatic event, as far as I know, it’s even pretty common. Schock can cause a temporary or permanent amnesia. Tilly, going back to the city, telling herself that she grew stronger and only wants to take revenge on people who hurt her, is actually lying to herself. She’s back, because she wants to find out what happened with this boy years ago, and relief from the burden she’s been carrying all those years “am I a murderer or not?”. She wants to go back to “clean herself” from all the charges, and show all the people in the city who despised her as a child, that she grew stronger now. Her come back is a kind of “ghost from the past” thing. And here comes Macbeth reference – all, who were guilty to hurting her in the past, have a glance of unevitable faith that’s awaiting them. Tilly haunts them, and brings revenge on them.
    Important thing is, “murder” of the boy was not the reason why Tilly had to go from the town in a first place, as it was just a cover. She had to go, cause her father ordered so, using the whole mess that came with this situation. He never wanted his wife to know about the romance he had with Molly, and that was a good way to get rid of the trouble. As to his wife not knowing anything about her sons death – nobody says she got this crazy after he died, it could’ve been already long before this tragical event. So, she was pretty much cut off from the oustide world.
    Important part of this movie are costumes, as another reference to Macbeth as a play. Not only they suggest falsehood of this place, but also, as it was partially explained in the movie, they have a “magical ability” to show the “inside” of the person, who they really are.
    And so, police officer, from compliant man turns into free and independent person, accepting who he really is, and repaying his fault. The opposite kind is Gertrude, who, from a modest, ugly girl, turns into too confident and mean. Clothes are also a good contrast for what’s inside of those town people – carrying fabulous outfits, but inside being still thoose judgemental, pitiful people.
    Basically, whole movie is about crime and punishment, just like Macbeth. It’s not that Tilly brings it on themselves (apart from burning the village), but they do. For example, doctor dies, cause he was not the one who helped his suffering from pain wife, although he could do that, and mayor dies because of his affairs and lies. Even Gertrude is kinda punished – she’s with a man who loves her only for her looks, and that won’t last forever.
    In case of Molly and Teddy – Molly dies after she recovered fully, gets back to being herself again. She’s free of all guilt, just like police officer, and gets away from that place, dying and repaying her sins towards a daughter, she couldn’t protect. I think both policeman’s and Molly’s end should not be percieved as a bad thing, rather as being “relieved” from this town of liars, as it was the only way to get out of there. As for Teddy – well, this, I believe, is kind of a “shock” move, to make the movie “different”, but also, Molly explains it briefly at the shop “he died cause he tried to show his love is stronger than your hate, and he failed”. As stupid as it might be, this event is rather symbolic, showing that trying to fight those people is impossible, or trying to change their narrow minds, and only thing possible to do is to to burn this place down.
    With an ending scene, comes, as for me, kinda nice symbolism: her return freed from this place all of those who were “good”, and the “bad” are about to be doomed. When she came there first, house was dirty and filled with garbage, during her stay she tried to clean and make things better. As she leaves, everything is back to dirty again, just like the town – inevitably filled with hate. The house itself has some symbolic, as it is not only “outside” of the village, just like Tilly and her mother was, but also, it’s up above all of the houses, showing that Tilly, who was pushed aside was actually above them all. The “red carpet” at the end gives a nice spark to the whole situation, and proves that Tilly is the only one, who, wearing those clothes, represents outside exactly what’s inside, as she’s the one and only “real” person in there, and they’re all just sad imitations. As everything burns, Tilly is freed of her “curse” in a “fenix-alike” style – reborn from the ashes of her past.
    Ps.: Quick mention about the retarded brother – explanation was in the movie directly, also.

    Reply
  5. Eclectic Chic

    Thank you So much! You saved me from spending my time and money on something so out of my “preference point” and nothing like I had hoped it would be. I was very interested but had reservations so I had to dig to find full insight but you provided that. Some of Us Do Not like to be surprised by Despicable elements in our films without Choosing them. I often deal with people in their darkest or manic places in my work therefore there is Nothing more I like to avoid in leisure. 1,000 thanks!!!!

    Reply
  6. Amy

    I am by no means a critic but I enjoy a well casted well written tale. I think it was a marvelous movie about a real people are. Yes, each character is a little over the top or cliche as you say, but I believe the screenwriter left us with the history of each character to set up the relationships between all the townspeople. I mean let’s face it, there is only a hour and a half to set up the entire scenario. I believe if you use you imagination you can perceive the exact character involved.
    It is obvious Molly has always been the outsider looking in, just as her house is set looking down on everyone. She, however was fine with her place in society.
    Teddy was an interesting character. You might accept he was simply in the wrong place at the right time (also pretty obvious, born to the wrong family)
    Yes the movie is dark. It is also very deep and colorful.
    Perhaps, you SHOULD watch it from a more comedic point of view. This is our society! Albeit on a much smaller level. The only decent person (surviving) in the movie is Tilly. She prevailed through all. She was talented, compassionate, intelligent and beautiful. I love this movie. I did not know it was Australian. Once again, I am not a critic. This was an awesome film. The kind Shakespear would perhaps create in a different setting and time.

    Reply
  7. anna_chronistic

    I know this is a review from more than a year ago when the movie was released, but it just came to Netflix in the US recently and I watched it, excited because I love Kate Winslet, vintage fashion, and thought the premise sounded good. And I hated it! I wholeheartedly agree with everything you wrote, and you expressed it better than I ever could have. Comedy? No. I can really enjoy some dark humor, but this was just made to inflict misery on the characters – all of them, even the ones with whom we’re meant to sympathize. If Teddy had lived and they’d left the town, it would have been salvageable, and I may have been able to forget the lack of focus in the rest of the film, but once he was killed off, it all went downhill. I’m going to remember the good moments and mentally revise the rest so I can like it … or like what it could have been.

    Reply
  8. Laura Darlington

    Every single point you made is the entire point of the story. It’s meant to be dark, it’s meant to be sad, the characters are meant to be awful people. Read the book for heavens sake.

    Reply
  9. Allison Nast

    I wish I had read your review before suffering through this movie. I think my biggest complaint is how the trailer portrayed the film – like a quirky rom-com along the lines of Chocolat, which it absolutely isn’t. I haven’t felt this betrayed by a movie since The Homesman. If you stop the movie at the 1:24 hour mark, it is still scattered and dark, but gives you a fairly complete and happy ending.

    Reply
  10. rinkrat19

    Hasn’t anyone seen The Dish? Absolutely delightful comedy with Sam Neil.

    I liked The Dressmaker, aside from Teddy’s death. I think that was just one step too far, and unnecessary. Everything else, I thought was a pretty good Gothic comedy-drama. And the dresses were glorious!

    Reply

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