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Unsatisfying film version fo Bainbridge's Dressmaker is caught in generation gap

Tearsheets: Bo Smith, Film Coordinator, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02115

Suggested headline: Film version of THE DRESSMAKER caught in generational gap


Directed by Jim O'Brien.

Screenplay by John McGrath.

Based on the novel by Beryl Bainbridge.

Starring Joan Plowright, Billie Whitelaw,

and Jane Horrock.

Plays through September 8 at the Museum

of Fine Arts.


THIS IS THE TYPE OF FILM WHOSE title is unrelated to anything else in the film,. When such a title is attached to a film which has been based on an acclaimed novel, it's a sure sign that the filmmakers have stripped away the elements of the novel that gave meaning to the title. In the case of The Dressmaker -- a 1973 novel by British author Beryl Bainbridge that was runner-up for the prestigious Booker Prize -- one may never know what liberties the filmmakers have taken, since the novel is now out of print. However, one thing seems certain -- the film version succumbs to the same generational gap that divides the major characters, and that leads to the film's undoing.

There is a person in this film who makes dresses -- the film opens with a shot of a matronly figure working at a sewing machine -- but the bulk of the film tells the story of a young girl named Rita who comes of age in 1944 Liverpool.

Rita's Aunt Nellie (Joan Plowright) and Aunt Margo (Billie Whitlaw) have been taking care of her ever since her mother died. Nellie (who is the dressmaker) is the sort of prim and proper woman who would be perfectly typecast as an elderly schoolmarm. She mutters things to herself like, "Young girls can get away with murder these days. Shameless." Margo, on the other hand, loves to party, be merry, and enjoy life while she can.

Seventeen-year-old Rita, who is just be


ginning to develop both emotionally and sexually, gets caught in the middle between these opposing points of view when she finds herself falling in love with a young American soldier named Wesley (Tim Ransom).

Although Joan Plowright's performance has earned the lion's share of critical kudos, the portrayal by newcomer Jane Horrocks as the mixed-up Rita is this film's major asset, simply because Rita's character is the most interesting one. Rita's growing pains -- "I like kissing, not doing rude things," says Rita after Wesley makes a pass at her -- are hardly earth-shattering events, but they arecertainly genuine, and Horrocks convincingly brings them to life.

The number of films that explore the coming-of-age story from the female point of view is distressingly small, and this film could have been a valuable addition to the list. Unfortunately, while the film evokes the same era as John Boorman's Hope and Glory (1987), The Dressmaker is much less successful because it keeps vacillating from one generational perspective to another and ends up doing justice to none of them.

Generational gaps can be potent subject material for serious filmmakers willing to explore the resulting tensions and pressures, but for whatever reason, director Jim O'Brien seems to have shied away from the very elements that could have made the film interesting and successful. The resulting film can't give enough screentime to meaningfully develop Nellie's and Margo's personae(this plural is correct, given the context. I looked it up--debby).

The film does eventually come together when the three main characters thrust aside their differences to deal with an unexpected death, but even then the final resolution seems rather shaky and contrived. Worse yet, the film simply ends, completely ignoring the real conflict that will arise later if Rita discovers the truth behind the death. As it stands, the promising portrayal of Rita is hopelessly undermined by the film's numerous vacillations in point of view, and the film suffers for it accordingly.


(The above is an expanded version of a review that ran in these pages last September when the film played in the 1988 Boston Film Festival.)