Jocelyn Moorhouse’s new TIFF film “The Dressmaker” is an unusual picture in many ways. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham, “The Dressmaker” is one of those films whose genre can only be grasped at with a string of multi-hyphenates: part dark comedy, part period fairytale, part stylish girl-power revenge fable.
“To me it’s a gothic comedy, a dark comedy … [with] a profound story at its heart," says star Kate Winslet, speaking to a small group of journalists in Toronto. Or as Moorhouse describes it, a tad more pithily: "'Unforgiven' with a sewing machine"
Kate Winslet stars as Tilly Dunnage, a dressmaker who returns from designing couture gowns in Paris to her rural (and fictional) Australian village of Dungatar, in order to reconnect with her mother and to find out the truth about her anguished past. Exiled and shunned by the town after a tragic childhood incident, she returns in a whirlwind of petticoats and fine silks, falling in love with a dashing young local Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) while winning over her enemies with custom gowns fit for the Parisian runways.
Genre concerns aside, the film also differs from the Hollywood norm in that it is one of the meager 7 percent of films that has a woman behind the camera. In addition to Moorhouse as director and writer, “The Dressmaker” also boasts a female-penned novel as source material and a female protagonist. It also has as a large cast of female supporting characters, with acclaimed Australian actress Judy Davis giving a scene-stealing performance as Tilly’s mom, “Mad” Molly Dunnage.
“I felt very excited to work with Jocelyn as a woman, because you don’t get to work with many female directors because there aren’t that many of them,” Winslet told Salon. “So I was very excited by that, and I’m proud of how predominant the female voice is behind the creative side of this film.”
At the same time, Winslet says she wouldn’t use that contentious F word when talking about the film. "I think it’s quite dangerous to kind of label things in that way,” she explains. “The word feminism, being a feminist, they’re both strong profound statements that can speak huge volumes, and I’m not necessarily sure that I would apply that to this film, it’s just fucking cool that you’ve got this amazingly strong woman at the heart of this story and that she happens to get revenge at the end, it’s just super great.”
Fine, so we won’t call it a “feminist revenge story.” But can we at least celebrate the fact that, in an industry where 39-year-old women are told they are too old to play opposite 55-year-old men, “The Dressmaker" features the rare, refreshingly romantic pairing where the age difference skews the other way? (And yes, the film features plenty of shots of skimpily-clad Liam Hemsworth, in case you were wondering).
“It was something I was sort of worried about in the beginning,” Hemsworth confessed. "I felt like I was possibly too young to play this part because in this film we’re seen as the same age, around the same age... But onscreen — Kate is such a beautiful woman and I have a beard in the film so I look quite a bit older, so I don’t think it’s an issue at all… She looks really young and I look weathered and old,” he added with a laugh.
“Isn’t that great, he’s about five years old,” joked Winslet about playing love interest to the 25-year-old “Hunger Games” star. “It didn’t really occur to me actually at all, I really didn’t know how old he is, I truly didn’t,” she continued. "I think it’s all about how you feel alongside that person, I didn’t particularly feel as though he was particularly younger than me or I was older than him. I felt more experienced than him in terms of career and in terms of the amount of years that I’ve been doing it for in comparison to him, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable or that or awkward at all. I didn’t have a sort of fist-pumping moment of hey look at me with the younger actor. I didn’t feel like that. He was the right person for the role.”
Indeed, Winslet has nothing but fond words for her costar, who took a break from “Hunger Games”-mania to come shoot the film in late 2014 — his first Australian film shot in his native Aussie accent. “I really felt like I knew who this person was and felt really comfortable in his skin on set,” explained Hemsworth, who says the character reminded him of his dad and grandpa. "I felt the freedom to take it to wherever I needed to, because I was in my accent but I also really knew what this guy was about."
“What was so lovely actually was that he was very open in expressing how excited he was that he was going to learn from all the actors around him,” added Winslet. "He was very excited by that and really asked a lot of questions, a lot of questions about acting, about career, in a way that I was quite surprised by, actually. He’s a very sweet, down-to-earth, really quite normal guy. And I felt as though doing ‘The Dressmaker’ at the time that he did was a real tonic for him, because he had just come off doing a press tour for ‘Hunger Games’ and that’s a totally different machine obviously. And this, he was chasing emus in the Outback and was happy as a clam. He was very very happy, it was as though he had come home.”
"The Dressmaker" premieres at TIFF tonight and hits theaters October 29.