Hello, everyone! A few days ago I watched The Dressmaker, which is a perfect example of a movie ruined by a single scene. Apart from that single scene, the movie is eccentric and unwieldy, but still a jaunty story to follow. A story of fashion and fiery revenge, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film is beautiful, but marred by mistakes.
Synopsis: When Tilly Dunnage returns to Dungatar, Australia, she’s bent on vindicating her tarnished name. Accused of murdering a boy 25 years before, Tilly was exiled from the town to Europe, where she became a stylish and accomplished dressmaker. Her return to the backwater Australian town disturbs the ingrained social order, and her unparalleled fashion skills elevate her from disgrace. Even as Tilly finds happiness in love and family, her dark history refuses to leave her. To destroy her curse, she must burn down the past and rebuild from its ashes.
Like I said above, I enjoyed the majority of the film. The story is clever, nasty, and surprisingly violent. Framed around Tilly’s amnesia regarding the events of her past, the plot unravels layer by layer to a satisfying reveal. To me, the movie seemed like two separate stories smashed into one: Tilly’s vindication and Tilly’s revenge. I’ll discuss the first part of the movie because I think that part worked best.
The first half of the movie had the most coherent story and message. As a dressmaker from a world more refined than the people of Dungatar can even imagine, Tilly’s presences revives the town from a slow death. Her clothing, filmed with loving detail, transforms the poor, dusty women of Dungatar into gorgeous idealized versions of their real selves. In one hilarious scene, Gertrude, a shop-keeper’s daughter who uses Tilly’s haute couture to win over the richest boy in town, is caught by his conniving mother in a hideous Dungatar-made wedding gown, and runs pell-mell through the town to Tilly, rather than let her future husband see her as she truly is. The power of fashion runs like a current through The Dressmaker, as both a benevolent and malicious force. Tilly’s designs allow the people of Dungatar to be better versions of themselves, but they also demonstrate how, behind the fancy dresses, the women can’t hide their true nastiness.
Tilly wears her Dior and Chanel like armor. She’s aware that despite the loathing the townspeople hold towards her, they can’t resist beauty and are drawn to the power she possesses in a tube of lipstick and a bolt of fabric. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse emphasizes the allure of Tilly’s refinement with some stunning framing and camerawork. Against the ragged, wild Outback, or the dusty soccer field, or an ancient movie theater, Tilly’s frocks become the robes of a god. She’s not just well-dressed, she’s transcendent. When she steps onto the soccer field in a body-hugging dress of deep scarlet, it’s as if she’s the film’s first burst of life.
Beauty is power in The Dressmaker, both inner and outer. When we first meet Tilly’s mother Mad Molly, she’s a filthy hermit with a store of wicked insults, most of them directed towards Tilly. As the film progresses, however, and the two women attempt to reconnect over a past of shared pain, Molly is revealed to be one of the only people in Dungatar with a conscience. Teddy, whose father is one of the poorest members of the town, joins Molly in that respect. Together they help Tilly to heal and accept her past.
When the film focuses on the story between Tilly, Molly, and Teddy, it shines. Tilly has two goals in this part of the movie: to remember her past and to help care for her mother. By the 90 minute mark, she’s accomplished both goals, as well as brought some good to Dungatar with her fashion skills. She and Teddy have plans to leave the town and make a life for themselves, because even though Tilly is valued for her skill, she’ll never escape her outcast status. The movie could have ended there and been perfect. In fact, I think it would have been far better reviewed if it had. But it didn’t. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
The Dressmaker is adapted from the book of the same name, but it diverges from it a few times in the first half of the film. In the book, Tilly remembers exactly what happened to the boy she is accused of murdering, but was powerless to defend herself from indictment. In the movie, Tilly has no memory of the act until Teddy helps her remember. I like the film’s rendition better because it strengthens the bond between Teddy and Tilly. He is more than a love interest to her; he is integral to her self-acceptance and internal forgiveness. The relationship between Tilly and Teddy, while not the most compelling romance I’ve ever seen on film, is cute and satisfying to watch. Liam Hemsworth, when given an actual part to act (COUGH COUGH HUNGER GAMES) has a strong presence onscreen and brings real warmth to the character. The chemistry between he and Winslet is electric.
When everything seemed perfect, the unspeakable happened. Teddy died. There was foreshadowing to his death, of course, but at the time, I didn’t notice. Early in the movie, Teddy jumps into a grain silo to prove to his friends that if it’s full of wheat, he can’t sink. I thought the scene was silly and unneeded. I should have realized that the only reason for such a superfluous scene was foreshadowing, the devil’s own work!
When Teddy tries to Tilly that she is no longer cursed, he jumps into the silo but suffocates to death at the bottom, because it was filled with sorghum, not wheat. If his death wasn’t manufactured purely to prove a point, I wouldn’t be so upset, but as it stands, his death is ridiculous. It doesn’t inspire the revenge spree that Tilly goes on later. That comes about because of her mother’s death. Only one death was necessary for the second half of the film, and Teddy’s death wasn’t it.
Why do I believe that this one scene ruined the movie? The way it’s written is outrageous. This trope where one lover proclaims their eternal devotion and immediately dies is emotionally manipulative and unrealistic. When characters die in this fashion, such as in Titanic, The Fault In Our Stars, Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey, and countless others, I can’t tell whether I feel sad because of their deaths, or because of the ruthlessly mixed emotional cocktail conjured up by the screenwriter.
If Teddy had to die (which he didn’t), why not have him die after her mother’s death, to emphasize her feeling of loss, or even after she’s committed revenge and found happiness somewhere else? Why place his death exactly on the point of perfect equilibrium in the story? There are no consequences from his death. They have no effect on Tilly’s actions in the remainder of the film. His death is pointless, and thus its pointlessness tarnishes the immensely purposeful actions that follow it.
To further emphasize how needless Teddy’s death was, let us imagine a version of The Dressmaker where Teddy didn’t die. Not one part of the rest of the story would be affected. Sure, Teddy might have cautioned her against revenge, but ultimately, with her mother dying in the street and barely a townsman coming to her aid, there is no doubt that Tilly would have sought that revenge, Teddy or no Teddy. He died only to provoke a sense of shock and outrage in the viewer, and I assume that was the purpose in the novel, too. If Jocelyn Moorhouse could diverge from other plot points in the story, in essence re-writing Tilly’s motivations for returning, then she could have easily removed this scene and kept the balance of her story intact.
If we split The Dressmaker into halves with Teddy’s death as the splitting point, the movie works. A movie where Tilly finds love and forgiveness is great on its own, just as a movie where Tilly seeks revenge for the death of her mother and her own miserable childhood is also great. But together, with Teddy’s unnecessary death, there is no reconciling them. The two parts don’t fit and The Dressmaker feels simultaneously overstuffed and incomplete.
Final Consensus: The Dressmaker is an odd, witty movie that emanates style and beauty. Adapted from the eponymous novel, the story is compelling to watch, save a disastrous plot point at the 90 minute mark. In halves, the movie is a great one, but as a whole it can’t move beyond the jarring misstep of Teddy’s death. The Dressmaker is proof that the emotional balance of a story is crucial to its success. By tipping the scales, director Jocelyn Moorhouse upset the equilibrium.