Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just have to give thanks (and credit) to a filmmaker for boldly stepping out of the Hollywood box and delivering a cinematic experience that is creative, interesting and downright unusual. Such is the case with director Jocelyn Moorhouse and her first film since A Thousand Acres (1997).
We know immediately that we are in for something a bit different. A1950’s era bus rolls down the dusty road and stops in a desolate little Aussie town with only a handful of store fronts. Western-style music accompanies Kate Winslet as she steps off the bus brandishing a Singer sewing machine rather than a Winchester or Colt. She lights up a cigarette, squints out from under her hat, and utters one of the more memorable first lines of any movie. We are hooked. (You had me at “bastards”)
What follows is based on Rosalie Ham’s best-selling novel with a screenplay from the director and PJ Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, 1997), and features a most remarkable blend of slapstick comedy, dark humor, tragedy, romance, mystery, and revenge. At times the film has a Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson feel, while at various other moments it recalls the Keystone Cops, Chocolat, a spaghetti western and a spoof of … well it’s difficult to say whether it’s a spoof or homage to numerous genres.
Ms. Winslet is in full lead mode as Tilly … the local girl who was accused of murder at age ten and banished from her mother and hometown. After 25 years, Tilly returns to Dungatar in an attempt to reconnect with her mom, gain a bit of revenge on the petty townfolks, and remember that fateful day that has been blocked from her memory. The tool of her trade is a sewing machine (and at times a golf club) and Tilly has the magic touch to transform the local ladies into more attractive and confident versions of themselves. She wields her Singer with every bit of danger as Blondie (Clint Eastwood) did with his revolver in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Judy Davis (A Passage to India) is fantastic as Tilly’s mother “Mad” Molly. In a role that would have been pure caricature in different hands (Maggie Smith), Ms. Davis provides a depth and humanity to a role that is truly the heart of the film. Also excellent is Hugo Weaving as the local Police Sergeant who has his own secret quirks and guilty conscience, and is one of the first to appreciate the talents Tilly brings to the small town. Liam Hemsworth spends the movie grinning and gazing in the role of arm candy Teddy – one easily recognizable as the female role in most movies (those not directed by a woman). The deep cast always features Sarah Snook as Gertrude and Kerry Fox as the villainous school marm Beulah (replete with devilish hairdo).
While the story itself is relatively predictable, it’s the manner in which scenes are staged that makes this such a pleasure. The offbeat combination of desolate Aussie town and near cartoon characters are set against the colorful and textured world of highly fashionable clothes, wicked twists, twisted humor, reconciliation and tragedy – many scenes combining more than a couple of these.
Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson deserve special attention for costume design, as the costumes themselves play as characters to contrast the local atmosphere. It’s startling to realize that such a coherent story utilizes such topics as domestic violence, spousal rape, misogyny, cross-dressing, murder, perjury, blackmail, Billie Holliday, South Pacific, cannabis brownies, and Sunset Boulevard in such creative ways. Though many critics will not agree, Ms. Moorhouse has delivered an entertaining and accessible movie despite its complexity with multiple subplots and various undertones. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait 20 years for her next film project.