“The Dressmaker”–Quirky Down-Under Drama

Based upon Rosalie Ham’s novel by the same name, The Dressmaker  (2015) gives us an opening scene in which  10-year-old Tilly Dunnage is being bullied by classmate Stewart Pettyman, the mayor’s son,  and a group of boys in Dungatar, a town in the  Australian outback. With little investigation she is sent away by police Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) for the boy’s murder.

Twenty-five years later (1951) Tilly (Kate Winslet) returns to Dungatar after a highly successful career as a couturier working in Paris.  Presumably returning to care for her mentally unstable mother Molly (Judy Davis), Tilly is mistreated by her mother and all the townspeople who have animus towards her for the alleged murder of Stewart Pettyman.  Her mother does not remember the past nor her daughter’s ordeal as a child, but clarity of mind soon prevails and Molly begins to realize her recall bias and the faulty, convenient memories of the townspeople of Dungatar.  Only a few townspeople, including Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and Gertrude (the surprising Sarah Snook who plays “Shiv” in the HBO series Succession), are willing to accept Tilly as she is, not her rumored past. Tilly is immediately too generous in spirit and too sophisticated, not to mention too glamorous, for Dungatar. But, she’s also unwilling to forgive and forget.

The characters are a wonderful, unexpected and thoroughly captivating array of narrative weirdness which will hold viewers’ attention.   The goofball, comedic scenes–a crossdresser, for example– may or may not be a comfortable fit for some viewers.  And humor is mixed with the cusp of a thriller, Dexter-style, in a surprising plot twist.  In some ways The Dressmaker reminded this reviewer of the classic “The Visit” (1964) or the more recent “Dogville” (2003).

The actors embrace the mayhem, with the remarkable, always noteworthy and energetic Kate Winslet and Judy Davis in the lead roles.  As the events of The Dressmaker unspool, it is frequently unpredictable:  where will the narrative take us next?  And then it goes further than one would think:  into the absurd…in a good way.  The unexpected journey is one worth taking.  The ensemble of misfits is highly original and quirky, making The Dressmaker an enjoyable and cheeky indie film. 

Availability:  Netflix DVD and Amazon Prime

“Ratched”–Ratcheting Up the Tension

This Netflix quasi-horror thriller creates a backstory for Nurse Ratched, the heartless villain in the 1975 Academy-Award winning classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  “What made Ratched so vile and so unimaginably cruel and unempathetic?” The answer, of course, has roots in Nurse Ratched’s  tragic early years, unhealed wounds that continue to fester.   Ratched is a female-villain origin story.  

Ratched  opens in 1947 as Mildred Ratched arrives in Big Sur to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital.  New experiments, believed to be cutting-edge,  have begun on the mostly affluent patients committed to their care. But there is  a brutal darkness within the hospital’s walls, literally cutting-edge, as lobotomies and other heinous surgical operations become almost daily routine.  In  eight episodes set in Hitchcock-style scenes, the diabolical scheming regurgitates similar carnage to “American Horror Story”(by the same producer, Ryan Murphy).

 In Ratched Sarah Paulson (also starring in “American Horror Story”)  plays the conniving, pathologically manipulative title character.  She performs with such intensity that the viewer wants to turn away from watching   how she entertains herself by creating chaos at others’ expense. As a predator master-planning each killing blow, Ratched’s targets all know she is coming for them but none are her match.  

The first four episodes are spellbinding, with an occasional act of kindness from Ratched to prevent a  one-dimensional  villain and sadist.   Ratched becomes understandable–if not relatable.  A subplot in which she has a tenuous relationship with Gwendolyn Briggs (the always wonderful Cynthia Nixon) has some of the best dialogue in the series. 

Nurse Ratched  becomes a metaphor for the corrupting influence of institutional power and authority.  And in Ratched, almost everyone is amoral.  Mildred’s co-worker and adversary, Nurse Betsy Bucket (the terrific Judy Davis), has the same ice-cold authoritarian blood. And Edmund, Mildred’s brother (Finn Wittrock), is both the embodiment of evil and a hopelessly wounded victim.   

The second half of the mini-series stands in stark contrast to the first.  In Episode 5 the story goes into a dizzying spiral downward in both plot and structure.  Charlotte Wells (the astonishing actor  Sophie Okonedo) is a patient being treated for severe multiple personality disorder. Why she is introduced and so poorly interwoven with the other characters is puzzling.  Okonedo, in a role not worthy of her in spite of sensational acting,   unravels the first half of what otherwise would have been an extraordinarily riveting narrative.  The first four episodes could stand alone as a far more integrated whole.  

Conclusion:  Watch for a very exciting story for the first half.  Stop if you don’t have time or the inclination to finish what is a very disappointing downhill narrative .