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