Normally I run a mile from books adapted into movies and vice versa, but something about The Dressmaker on screen intrigued me. I wanted to delve deeper into the story, so decided to read Rosalie Ham’s novel.
Although I enjoyed the movie, I was a little in the dark about Tilley’s motive for returning to Dungatar. I may have missed the explanation, or it may not have been explained to my satisfaction. Whatever the reason, neither the book nor the movie suffers from the other’s existence. This novel is faithfully reproduced on screen with only slight dramatic license taken. I won’t spoil either book or movie for you by telling what has been changed.
This book is described in its original printing as a “an Australian gothic novel of love hate and haute couture.” The re-release for the film tie-in calls it a “bittersweet comedy about love, revenge and haute couture”. Both descriptions are accurate; it is dark, gothic if you wish, yet there is a good deal of black humour. In The Dressmaker, Rosalie Ham looks at the small world of Dungatar with a keen eye and shows us the foibles of this insular community.
Some of the characters in this book are just about as despicable as you can get, some are haughty, some kind, some poor, others rich by comparison (their own mainly). Let me introduce you to a few residents of Dungatar:
Tilley, Myrtle Dunnage, was spirited out of town at age 10. Following the death of a young boy, Stewart, she was falsely accused of murder. She is the daughter of Molly Dunnage, father unknown, two facts guaranteed to make her guilty of any, and all, crime in this small community. Despite these less than favourble beginnings, Tilley worked in some of the top couturier houses of Europe. She returns to the town ostensibly to care for her mother.
Molly Dunnage, Mad Molly as she is known, is a woman at the edges of sanity, living in a derelict house above the town dump. She and her daughter are reviled by many of the fine townsfolk.
Evan Pettyman, a big fish in a small pond, with just enough power to make him dangerous. His wife Marigold is a victim of his tyranny as are others in the town. Although more than one child in the community was fathered by Evan, he only acknowledges Stewart, the boy who tragically died.
Percival Almanac is the local pharmacist and a mean spirited and controlling man. He is one of those people whose words speak of god and his actions are the antithesis of charitable. His wife Irma is in a wheelchair, but can’t get the medications from her husband because he believes pain is caused by sin.
The McSwiney family – there numerous McSwiney’s. The father Ed is the town’s handyman and with wife Mae has have 11 children, two of whom feature in the book and film. Even though the McSwiney family are the town outcasts, living in a variety of shelters, they are kind and Mae keeps an eye out for Molly. Son, Barney has a disability and Ted McSwiney is the star footballer and ultimately Tilley’s love interest.
Sergeant Horatio Farrat is the town’s only police officer; he is a good man, but has a secret he somehow manages to keep in this small town. His character is interesting; he likes Dungatar because it allows him to fly below the radar with his superiors.
One character who undergoes a huge change throughout the novel is Gertrude Pratt, whose parents own and operate the general store. She marries the town’s eligible bachelor, William Beaumont, becoming Trudi in the process and out-snobbing his mother, the awful Elsbeth.
The juxtaposition of good and evil, light and dark, is a strong theme of both book and novel, within individuals and within the group mentality. These are the people Tilly left behind, and the people she returns to face, albeit more confident and capable than the Myrtle who left town. When the ladies learn of Tilley’s magic they flock to her to transform their wardrobes, not that anyone is paying!
Reading the book has clarified some questions in my mind, but that is not to detract from the film. The film is brilliantly cast and reading the book reinforces the deep respect screenwriter and director Jocelyn Moorhouse shows for the novel she is depicting.
I recommend you both see the film and read the book, in that order. Here are a film and book which enhance each other.
The Dressmaker, by Rosalie Ham, is available from Dymocks