In “The Dressmaker” (opening Friday), set in 1951, Kate Winslet plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who returns to her tiny, rural Australian hometown many years after she was forced to leave at 10 years of age. Her arrival comes as a major shock to the town that has always considered her a curse — the person responsible for the death of a schoolmate two decades earlier.
Even Dunnage’s outcast mother, who lives as a virtual hermit in a filthy, broken-down shack on a hill overlooking the town, is shocked to see the “new” Tilly. She returns as a highly skilled dressmaker trained in the couture fashion houses of Paris. In short order Dunnage begins redressing the dowdy women in the village — an aspect of the film that Oscar winner Winslet found extremely appealing.
“Of course, in prepping for the film, I had to brush up on my Balenciaga, shall we say!” said Winslet with a laugh. “The one thing I did experience in that process was developing a deeper understanding of exactly how impactful an amazing dress can be for a woman.
“I’m in such a fortunate position where I get to wear some really amazing dresses on red carpets. That is one of those things I have never taken for granted. Yet, what Tilly does for the women in that town —making them look and feel extraordinary, and quite like they’ve never felt before — was really transformative for them. That really spoke to me.”
On the surface, it might seem that Dunnage returned to exact revenge and find vindication for being sent away from her mother and the only home she knew as a young child.
But Winslet doesn’t think about the film, based on first-time novelist Rosalie Ham’s book, in quite that way. “A lot of people ask me, ‘How did it feel to play this kind of femme fatale?’ I kind of resisted wanting her to feel like a femme fatale. She’s so much more than that. There’s a vulnerability to her, as well as a strength and a toughness. The clothes she wears and the gorgeous clothes she makes for others have been her means of survival. Learning how to make beautiful dresses was Tilly’s way to come to terms with her own self-expression and discover a sense of confidence. It stopped her from being miserable and isolated during all those years when she lived away and alone.”
A true highlight of making “The Dressmaker” for Winslet was the chance to work opposite award-winning Australian actress Judy Davis, who plays Tilly’s mother. “One of the key reasons Tilly returns to her town was not simply to seek revenge or some kind of comeuppance. There’s a bit of that, but she’s actually coming back for answers to what really happened with that boy’s death, and to find her mother again.
“The mother-daughter side of the story was something I just adored. Working with Judy Davis is absolutely up there as one of the greatest moments of my working life.”
Among Winslet’s favorite moments was the scene where she fought hard to get her filthy mother into the bathtub. “Oh my God! That was f—ing hilarious,” said Winslet with a loud guffaw. “That was so much fun. Trying to literally pick her up, holding her arms in and undressing her, while she was kicking me and holding on to the door frame — that was so funny.”
Another favorite “Dressmaker” moment was one that will make many women swoon with jealousy. “It was that wonderful scene with Liam Hemsworth as Teddy [Tilly’s ultimate love interest in the film], when he comes to get measured for a suit. Judy and I were bickering across the kitchen table, and then we turn around and there’s Liam standing there in just his underpants.
“Judy and I did come up with that ourselves — that double take — on that day we filmed it. I have to say, I almost regretted it, because we almost couldn’t keep a straight face. Talk about unprofessional behavior! Poor Liam who was stuck there stripped down to his underwear, and Judy Davis and I are there like old hags — cackling in the corner and doubled over.”