After 20 years working in Melbourne and Europe, Tilly Dunnage returns to the small country town of her childhood, Dungatar. Despite the passing of time, the local townsfolk still hold a grudge over Tilly’s involvement in a fatal accident, and both she and her ill mother, Molly, are ostracised from the rest of the town. Her only ally is Teddy, a rugged footballer whose large, poverty-stricken family lives in a caravan on the outskirts of town. Over time, the ladies of Dungatar realise Tilly’s extraordinary dressmaking skills. Begrudgingly, they venture up the hill, to beg Tilly to create their very own piece of haute couture – each one trying to outdo the other. Tilly complies with their requests, although it becomes clear that she is driven by a darker purpose – to exact revenge on the people of Dungatar.
At this point, I should mention that I actually watched the movie of The Dressmaker several months prior to reading the book. I loved the movie, but I only rated the book a moderate 3/5. It's hard to tell whether my reaction would have been different if I'd done things in the opposite order. Reading a novel loses a lot of its appeal when you know exactly what's going to happen, and how it will end. When I'm reading, I really enjoy conjuring up images of the characters and the setting, but given I'd already watched the movie, there wasn't much room left for the imagination. Both fashion and the rural landscape are key themes for this story, and they're both elements that make a strong visual impact. I think that's one reason why the movie worked so well: detailed descriptions of fashion became a bit longwinded in the novel, whereas with the movie, there was instant impact - a picture tells a thousands words!
Rewardingly, after watching the movie and reading the novel, I met the author, Rosalie Ham, at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Hearing her speak about the novel provided wonderful insights into her writing process and her inspiration for the book. Also, her comments actually shifted my perception of the novel. For example, my main criticism was the sheer number of characters that were included – it was hard to keep track of them all. But after listening to Rosalie, I do think she was trying to capture the true feel of a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, and they all play their part in the overall village life. To be true to this, she had to introduce lots of different characters.
Growing up in Jerilderie, Rosalie loves wide-open spaces, and specifically wanted to write about a small rural town. Interestingly, the film’s producer, Sue Maslin, also comes from Jerilderie – so they shared an understanding of the inspiration for the novel’s setting. Part of the movie was filmed in rural Victoria, and some scenes in Brunswick, where Rosalie now lives. The host for our festival session, Nathalie Kon-yu (an author in her own right) shared an amusing story of being evicted from her pilates class in Brunswick when the film crew arrived at the hall to shoot a scene from the film. Rosalie herself actually appeared as an extra in the film, although she admits that she’s a terrible actor, and most of her scenes were cut! She truly loved the process of adapting the book to the big screen, happily handing the script over to the director and producer, without requesting any involvement. It was heart warming to hear how much she relished watching the movie for the first time: “I immersed myself in the experience, and actually forgot that it was my own story”. She even bought a new dress for the occasion!
Rosalie was genuine and humble, and spoke about the cathartic process of writing her novel in order to “get a few things off my chest”. For many years, she'd wanted to write about bigotry, small-mindedness and revenge – it took her six years to write The Dressmaker, but her perseverance has paid off. Actually, she still seemed quite surprised at her own success, and reminisced fondly about the phone call she received, advising that her story would be published: “I was eating my muesli when I received the call – I was so excited that I danced around the kitchen in my pjs, with my messy bed hair”!
During the interview, Rosalie was asked about the role of female relationships in the book, specifically the mother-daughter relationship between Tilly and Molly. Like all the writers we heard, Rosalie felt surprised at the degree to which the book had been analysed – and actually admitted that she didn’t intentionally focus on that particular relationship. Interestingly, her own mother had left the family home when Rosalie was young, but she said she never felt abandoned – her mother had moved only two blocks down the road, a very easy bike ride after school. However, Rosalie mused, “I’m sure people will read into this experience and believe that subconsciously I must have issues with my own relationship with my mother – and that’s why I brought in the theme of the mother/daughter relationship between Tilly and Molly – but I didn’t mean to”. Actually, I'm one of those people! It's hard to believe it's pure coincidence.
So overall, would I recommend The Dressmaker? The book wouldn’t be high on my list - but I'd definitely recommend a home movie night on the sofa, so you can immerse yourself in the film.