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The Dressmaker Cuts On the Bias of Fashion and Gender

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Actress Kate Winslet shows new, never before seen sass in The Dressmaker. As Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, a fashionista who returns to her rural home town in 1940s Australia, Winslet sashays through the dusty streets, hilly yards and tough-guy rugby field with a vengeance—she’s out to retaliate against the small-minded folk who ostracized her as an oddball youth (even blaming her for a childhood crime). Yes, there’s the usual Winslet sorrows except that The Dressmaker has a script by P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend’s Wedding) who writes another of his inimitable gay-friendly farces. “I do have an unusual talent for cutting on the bias” Tilly boasts. So while Tilly suffers (Winslet sometimes recalls Isabelle Huppert’s placid, beautiful distress) anyone watching has a very good time.

Actually, it’s Hogan’s sensibility that is the real star of The Dressmaker. He adapts the Rosalie Ham novel, a neo-feminist soap opera, to salute the indefatigable brotherhood and sisterhood of women and gay men who struggle to find acceptance and love. Tilly has several counterparts in the outback where females are subjugated to rugged patriarchs and even the town constable (Hugo Weaving) can barely suppress his leanings toward drag. She sweeps into their decrepit complacency with a make-over manifesto: To make women “Less like themselves and more like they want to be.”

That couturier’s motto is also the essence of gay liberation. A sense of emancipation courses through The Dressmaker as Tilly confronts her oppressive past. Her mother Molly (Judy Davis) uses dementia to disguise her own life-long frustrations, but she also gets a make-over just like frumpy, old-maid Gert (Sarah Snook) and other women who wake-up and line-up to buy Tilly’s creations. “Watch and learn” Tilly says as she struts into a rugby game, dressed like Rita Hayworth as Gilda, and distracts the teams.

Liam Hemsworth, as rugby player Teddy McSwiney, is first seen erotically—in muscled, sweaty action, flashing his sparkling eyes and the brown tufts of his arm pits. It’s the little Hemsworth’s first screen role as a genuine heartthrob. “Think you’re good looking, don’t ya?” Molly snaps, but she’s smitten, too (a comic triumph for the always inventive Davis). Teddy fulfills the dream of acceptance Tilly has longed for but it’s also—cinematically—a gay dream. That’s because Hogan has a gift for what used to be called “women’s pictures”—formerly code for the Hollywood movies by gay male directors who displayed emotional sympathy in stories about the travails of female characters.

But P.J. Hogan represents a new era of human empathy and social wit. Just as The Dressmaker is an example of Australian artists embracing their crude national history, Hogan embraces how all people long to be understood—who awkwardly seek emotional justice. Hogan’s best films to date are his transcendent Peter Pan (2003) and the globe-spanning farce Unconditional Love (2002) which was written by his wife Jocelyn Moorhouse. The fact that Moorhouse directed The Dressmaker doesn’t make it more feminist because she and Hogan have got female sensibility covered. (Her own films tend toward seriousness—here acknowledging sorrowful repression and angry vindication when the plot works toward tragic resolution). Yet, The Dressmaker also has Hogan’s bountiful spirit which tempers the anger and edginess. He unites sisterhood and brotherhood in the best sense and that’s gay.

Hogan employs “Bali H’ai” from South Pacific as the movie’s theme—an inspired, theater queen, connection to the Australian cult filmWelcome to Woop Woop. When The Dressmaker inevitably becomes a Broadway musical, its greatest feat will be preserving Hogan’s unique talent for bias cutting.

The Dressmaker is in theaters now.

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