Review © by Jane Freebury
Once upon a time in the Wimmera, a stranger comes to town. The twang of guitar and low-angle framing suggest that this someone means business. The main street is empty, more a case of it being the dead of night than townsfolk getting out of harm’s way. It's welcome to Dungatar, one lonely corner of the wheatbelt, a land of spectral trees and granite outcrops.
More spaghetti western than the classic western—more Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West than Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven—this is a triumphant return to the screen by director Jocelyn Moorhouse who started out with promise 20 or so years ago with films like Proof here and How to Make an American Quilt over there in Hollywood. One senses, in this extravagant and improbable blend of revenge western, romance and biting social comedy, a filmmaker’s declaration of purpose. She is back too and in business.
The glamorous stranger, Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet), a vision in 1950s haute couture, has been away quite a while, most of her life actually. Off to boarding school from where she made her way to the fashion houses of Europe. She can't recall the exact details of the terrible event that forced her to leave town when she was little, and she has returned to find out how she came to be blamed for the death of Evan Pettyman's son, Stewart.
She soon finds that little in Dungatar has changed and what has, only for the worse, like the dilapidated cottage that was once home. Her mad mother Molly (Judy Davis) pretends she doesn’t know her at first, and the town women shun her cruelly. Until they see what Tilly can do for them with a Singer sewing machine and a roll of fabric, and Trudy (Sarah Snook) is made over into a proposition for the town's most eligible bachelor.
With few exceptions, the small-minded townsfolk of Dungatar are a particularly gruesome lot, from the schoolmistress (Kerry Fox) to the wife-beater pharmacist (Barry Otto) to the town heavyweight Pettyman (Shane Bourne). As the town policeman who also has his secrets but is a good guy, the wonderful Hugo Weaving is as a cross-dresser who goes weak at the knees at the sight and scent of gorgeous fabrics. Was it really two decades ago that the outback last saw him in a Priscilla frock?
Although Tilly herself snares Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and things go off on a romantic tangent for a while, it is the relationship with Molly where sparks really fly and where the fun is. Davis is terrific form as the irascible hag with lascivious tongue who pushes Tilly Teddy's way - to the strains of Bali Ha'i from South Pacific - and she stands up for her when it matters.
I have to admit that the trailer did make me nervous. Could be clunky. Haute couture in the 1950s outback, another tale of high culture to the plebs? Risky.
It works just fine, a tribute to the director and the great team who put it together, including cinematographer Don McAlpine who has a knack for balancing style and sophistication with the beauty of the Wimmera's arid, vast emptiness. A western with a sewing machine? Yes, it is.