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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Women get their own in ‘The Dressmaker’

As the father of a young woman — a woman has now has her own children — I am particularly interested in stories that involve women. Particularly stories involving the roles that women have played in history. This, then, is one reason why I am so accepting — despite its obvious flaws — of "The Dressmaker," an Australian film that is playing at AMC River Park Square.

What follows is my review of "The Dressmaker," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I often think about the career of Clint Eastwood. In some respects, the man has been making the same film since he first attracted the attention of Sergio Leone. In Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as he would do later for crime specialist Don Siegel and other filmmakers – not to mention the filmmaker he himself would become – Eastwood typically starred as a man, cast in some sort of situation where he would seek justice, or more often simple revenge, with a gun.

I thought of Eastwood in particular when I watched the Australian film “The Dressmaker,” which was directed by the long-missed Jocelyn Moorhouse and stars Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Kerry Fox, Hugo Weaving and a number of other cast members who are far better known Down Under than in the U.S.

The winner of numerous Australian movie awards, “The Dressmaker” tells the story of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (played by Winslet), a woman of obvious high fashion, who returns to her Outback hometown late one night with a simple observation: “I’m back, you …” well, the adjective she uses is not one that I’m allowed to repeat on Public Radio (or even on the website of a family newspaper). You get the idea.

Seems Tilly has returned to clear up something. Some years before, she had been accused of murder – even though she was only 10 years old at the time. But Tilly can’t remember the specifics, so she has come home both to find out the truth and to care for her mother (played by the irrepressible Davis), who has – and this is an understatement – chosen to let herself go.

The town isn’t too keen on any of this, secrets and lies – not to mention resentment and prejudice – being what binds most of its residents into a tight klatch. Yet Tilly intrigues them, especially when she hauls out her sewing machine and demonstrates a talent both for creating fashion and converting the town’s ugly ducklings into something akin to Outback swans.

So far, so good. Yet Moorhouse’s film, her first since 1997’s “A Thousand Acres,” doesn’t go necessarily where expected. Based on a novel by Rosalie Ham, “The Dressmaker” proceeds down a number of subsequent plot paths – some of which are farcically comical, one of which involves a shocking death – rejecting each before transforming into a woman’s version of the Eastwood revenge film “High Plains Drifter.” This blend of storylines, much less emotional turbulence, doesn’t always work.

Yet the film has much to recommend it. The opening is brilliant, the cinematography is pristine, the acting – especially by Davis and Winslet – is good across the board, even if the great Weaving seems mostly to be reviving the fey manner he adopted for the 1994 drag-queen film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

Maybe most important, though, “The Dressmaker” is a woman’s story. For as long as cinema has been around, we’ve been inundated with tales of men – such as Eastwood – exacting revenge. It’s high time for movies to feature women taking names and kicking some, well …

Again, you get the point.

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