The Dressmaker (2015) ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2

We stay in the South Pacific (following New Zealand’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople) with a quirky tale from Australia entitled The Dressmaker.  It is comic, dramatic, mysterious, troubling, heartrending and beautiful — one of the best films of the year.

Dress designer Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns to rural Dungatar in the middle of the night, hissing “I’m back, you bastards!” to its sleeping residents.  That sets the tone, and the story which follows explains why Tilly (nee Myrtle) was forced away, her terrible secret — which everyone seems to know, except that they really don’t — and how she attempts to reconnect to her mad mother Molly (Judy Davis, who is outstanding), address the past and begin her future.

Jocelyn Moorhouse’s movie, which is based on a bestselling novel by Rosalie Ham, has dramatic shifts in tone which may bother some viewers, but which I found to be wildly effective.  The film keeps viewers off balance, refusing to adhere to convention, with the result that it is constantly fresh and surprising.  Certain things are telegraphed, of course, yet their impact is not diminished.

Not everything is explained (the fascination with golf).  The characters are not particularly likable (virtually all of the town’s residents).  The answer to the central mystery is so odd it is hard to believe (seen in slow-motion flashback).  Its conclusion is unexpected and over the top (not to mention extremely hot).  And yet everything collectively coalesces into a remarkable film, which was actually lensed in 2014 and released in Australia last year.  Now it is poised to become an arthouse hit in America.

This is a risky type of movie; when black comedy falls flat it isn’t pretty.  But this film is sharply written, beautifully acted, cannily staged, magnificently photographed and emotionally draining.  Its best moments are dramatic yet it is plenty funny as well.  I think women will find it even more rewarding than I do, and I think it is terrific.  Watch for it to be an Oscar contender for costumes, and for Judy Davis’ performance, and perhaps more.  I highly recommend this movie; it’s a psychotherapist’s wild dream.  ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2.  7 October 2016.

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