A rare look at rural Australia, the dark comedy “The Dressmaker” traffics in small
town fecklessness. Based on a debut novel by Rosalie Ham, it shows rough redemption for a disgraced woman, Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet), who returns to the dusty New South Wales village of Dungatar from where she was exiled as a 10 year-old after her involvement with a local boy’s death.
It’s 1950, and Tilly sneaks into town after 25 years, in the meantime having
established herself as an haute couture dressmaker in major Paris fashion houses. She’s returned to aid her aging single mother Molly (Judy Davis) and to uncover the truth behind her banishment. She also has revenge on her mind.
Dismissed by most everyone, she starts a dressmaking business whose
stylishness captivates every woman in town. She then rouses her near comatose
mother into grudging life, finds an ally in the town policeman, an ardent but secret cross dresser, Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), and bonds with a local hunk Teddy McSweeney (Liam Hemsworth).
The townspeople constitute a parade of loathsome and/or foolish types: The
secretive, vicious city councilor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) and his drug-addled wife Marigold (Alison White), the senile, cruel pharmacist Mr. Almanac (Barry Otto), the ambitious daughter of the town’s store owner Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook), the malicious schoolmistress Beulah Harridene (Kelly Fox), who put Tilly away with her testimony, and sundry others.
Still, by bringing Molly out of her stupors and gleaning bits about the fatal incident from avid customers, Tilly gradually pieces together what really happened so many years ago when the town bully threatened her. Before she can finally craft her revenge, however, multiple tragedies intervene which finally leave her free.
The tone of “The Dressmaker” is decidedly fitful, roving from coarse slapstick
through sweet romance to brutal acts of violence. Groans of laughter are followed in short order by winces at pain. Depending how a viewer handles such tonal shifts will determine their appreciation of the film. I said it was a “dark” comedy, right?
For the record, the film was a smash Down Under, garnering many awards,
including eight nominations and four winners from the association of Aussie film critics. The film’s look, shot on a striking (if too small) set is handsome, and the costumes— providing a parade of Tilly’s fabulous creations—look like the greatest fashion hits of the 1950’s. The feel of this backwater in its narrowness and barrenness is well achieved.
“The Dressmaker,” helmed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, a veteran Australian director
long absent from the screen, boasts a lineup of fine Aussie actors, all of whom work hard but too often come off as merely one-dimensional types: sour here, nasty there, silly over there. Even the great Judy Davis (almost unrecognizable in ashcan makeup) is limited to being a bitter crone. The two male leads, Hugo Weaving as the fey Farrat, and Helmsworth as dashing Teddy, have somewhat richer presences, Weaving providing the best comic lines and Helmsworth offering an ingratiating smile to go with his chiseled physique.
It is Kate Winslet’s picture, however, and her serious demeanor and vulnerability
place her on a more human plane than anyone in town. Though she can still be cheeky (showing off a clinging red dress at a rugby match), she generally displays an intelligence and fellow feeling unmatched in poisonous Dungatar. She is the sensible center in a benighted place, and her performance won her plaudits as the best actress of 2015 in an Australian film.
(The film is rated “R” and runs 118 minutes.)
Photo Credit: Kate Winslet as Tilly Dunnage (left) and Judy Davis as Molly in “The Dressmaker;” a Broad Green Pictures / Amazon Studios release. Photo Credit: Ben King
Queen of Katwe
In the mood for a heart warmer? Look no further that “Queen of Katwe,” the incredible story of a poor Ugandan child’s life remade through playing chess--no less. The film, based on a true story written by journalist Tim Crowther, brings pathos and triumph in equal measures as it traces the amazing five-year journey of one Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwange).
Phiona’s saga begins in 2007, when the young girl is helping her widowed mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) sell maize on the dirt streets of Katwe, an urban slum residing within the capital city of Kampala, Uganda. The family survives in a crude shack where Phiona lives with her mom, older sister Night, and two younger brothers. Her future, just like her mother’s, is bleak.
She becomes curious about a striving youth chess club mentored by a local government worker, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who welcomes her to the club only to find that she has an innate knack for the game. She can envision moves even though she is illiterate and becomes the best player in the club, even winning a local tournament. Harriet, puzzled by her daughter’s success, is skeptical of her attention being diverted away from home and family.
As years pass, Phiona rises to new heights in the game, even able to represent her country in international matches. An eventual loss to an older player breaks her confidence, but Katende, who recognizes her genius, stokes that confidence anew, up to the finale of the nationwide chess tournament.
This is a Disney family movie (it’s OK to take the kids) but not a treacly one: the life and personal struggles are real, the family quandaries likewise, but their sweet resolution seems honest and genuine. The reality of the picture, securely directed by the Indian-American Mira Nair from a script by William Wheeler, is heightened through graphic—yet colorful—depictions of the actual Katwe itself, a vast, tumbling shantytown with only the promise of the capital in the distance. The movie truly feels African, a place where the red dust of East Africa surrounds you.
The picture is also well served by its leads. Oyelowo (Dr. King in “Selma”) is patient and compelling as Katende, the very model of a mentor, and Nyong’o (Oscar winner for “12 Years a Slave”) balances her market-wise skepticism with delicate maternal touches (and she looks great in lively Ugandan frocks). Miss Nalwange bears the burden of the picture, and she is a natural, both shy and curious, rueful in her daily life but dogged in competition. She navigates changes from the super-shy youngster through the petulant daughter to the poised champion—and carries them all off with grace. She merits the eponymous title of the picture.
Director Mira Nair has had an amazingly varied and distinguished career in film over four continents: in her native India with films like “Salaam Bombay” and “Monsoon Wedding,” in England with “Vanity Fair,” and in the US with “Mississippi Masala” and “The Namesake.” Now she has taken on Africa—where she organizes an annual filmmakers’ laboratory program in Uganda—with “Queen of Katwe.” Her familiarity with the land and the spirit of the place is palpable and believable.
Stay for the end credits where each principal actor is joined on a set by the actual Ugandan they are playing. This capstone really warms the heart. (The film is rated “PG”—contains nothing objectionable--and runs 124 mins.)
Photo Credit: Madina Nalwange (left) as Phiona and David Oyelowo as Robert in “Queen of Katwe,” a Disney Studios Production