Going into The Dressmaker in late 2015, I expected a tastefully-executed, handsomely-burnished, but ultimately very well-mannered period drama. I certainly didn’t anticipate such a fun, delightfully full-blooded romp, part Merchant Ivory and part Kill Bill. This commercial success and critical darling marked a welcome return to screens for director Jocelyn Moorhouse, whose last Australian film as director prior to The Dressmaker was 1991’s Proof, an equally acclaimed but very different beast. But Moorhouse was no slouch in the interim, producing and collaborating with husband P.J. Hogan on several of his films—including Muriel’s Wedding, Peter Pan, and Mental —as well as directing a pair of American films, How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and A Thousand Acres (1997).
Following last week’s look at three of Bruce Beresford’s overseas films, this week’s article looks at Moorhouse’s two American films from the 1990s. I’m not sure what types of projects Moorhouse pursued or was offered in the aftermath of Proof, but on the surface American Quilt and A Thousand Acres don’t seem intuitive matches to the subject matter and skill set behind Proof. Rather, they appear somewhat emblematic of Hollywood’s default assignation of “women’s films” to “women directors”; indeed, the year before American Quilt, fellow Australian Gillian Armstrong directed another women’s film featuring American Quilt stars Winona Ryder, Samantha Mathis, and Claire Danes, namely Little Women. But both American Quilt and A Thousand Acres have their merits, and their themes would be picked up further in The Dressmaker, a slyer, more subversive Antipodean spin on the women’s film. As a result, American Quilt and A Thousand Acres serve as a bridge between Moorhouse’s debut and most recent Australian work.
Stars: Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Maya Angelou, Alfre Woodard, Kate Nelligan, Samantha Mathis, Claire Danes, Dermot Mulroney, Johnathon Schaech
First viewing, via DVD
Finn (Winona Ryder) is a young woman completing her Master’s thesis. To finish her dissertation and contemplate her engagement to Sam (Dermot Mulroney), she spends the summer at the home of her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and grand-aunt (Anne Bancroft). Over the course of the season, she interviews the older women comprising her grandmother’s sewing circle, absorbing and learning from their stories while grappling with whether to settle down or have an affair with a new acquaintance (Johnathon Schaech).
Like its titular quilt, American Quilt is a tapestry of lovingly crafted women’s stories and experiences spanning mid-to-late twentieth century America. These stories are alternately (and often simultaneously) funny, tragic, and affecting in their depictions of American women’s trials and tribulations—particularly with the men who romance, cheat on, and/or leave them—and while some skew towards the saccharine or the obvious, others have a touch of that same oddball black comedy that enlivened The Dressmaker. The film’s period recreations are impeccable and bequeathed a suitably nostalgic glow by Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
The telling of these tales provides great showcases for both younger and older actresses, with Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft, and Samantha Mathis particular standouts in the uniformly good cast. Winona Ryder provides the glue that holds the film together. As a child of the 1980s and teenage boy of the 1990s, I was the exact right age to be susceptible to Ryder’s charms and elven princess features, though as a teenage boy of the 1990s I wasn’t necessarily the target audience for American Quilt (nor Little Women), which is a shame as it would have made me a better man in the 2000s. Ryder’s a solid anchor for the film, providing a generous sounding board for the showier work around her. On the male side of things, Johnathon Schaech of Welcome to Woop Woop plays Ryder’s romantic temptation, which kinda, sorta, almost works if you squint and forget everything you know about Johnathon Schaech.
Stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jason Robards, Keith Carradine, Colin Firth, Pat Hingle, Michelle Williams, Elisabeth Moss
First viewing, via DVD
Geoffrey Wright and Justin Kurzel aren’t the only Australian directors to adapt Shakespeare to film, and Bruce Beresford’s not the only Australian director to helm a film starring Jessica Lange about a trio of wounded sisters grappling with their family history. Moorhouse did both in A Thousand Acres, based on a Jane Smiley novel based on Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The story transfers the plot of King Lear to a thousand acre farming estate in Iowa. Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jennifer Jason Leigh play sisters Ginny, Rose, and Caroline, the film’s substitutes for King Lear’s Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. When Larry Cook (Jason Robards), the patriarch and film’s Lear surrogate, bequeaths the estate to his three daughters, older daughters Ginny and Rose welcome their inheritance while favourite daughter Caroline expresses reservations. Larry shuns Caroline and begins to disintegrate mentally and exact verbal and emotional abuse on his long-suffering eldest daughters, making them the scourge of the local community and forcing them to confront the darker corners of their family history.
Smiley’s novel is a revisionist feminist take on a canonical work redistributing reader sympathies to characters previously cast as villainous or other, in much the same vein as, say, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a feminist and postcolonial re-reading of Jane Eyre (likewise adapted to film by an Australian director, in this case John Duigan). In both book and film of A Thousand Acres, Goneril and Regan, as well as their absent mother, are explicitly presented as victims of their father’s physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, something that is arguably implicit in Shakespeare’s text but not necessarily elucidated in all interpretations. The result is a sympathetic portrait of characters too often reduced to stereotypical villains, one that justifies their rejection of their father and condemns his patriarchal transgressions. While it lacks the Bard’s gravitas, it delivers on the source text’s tragic denouement.
Lange and Pfeiffer are typically great, with Pfeiffer in particular capturing Rose’s/Regan’s steely resolve and simmering resentment, but also her sisterly and motherly compassion. Leigh doesn’t feature prominently enough to make a strong impression, but that’s symptomatic of the Cordelia role on both page and stage. Elsewhere in the cast, Keith Carradine is likable as Ginny’s husband, Colin Firth is handsomeness on a stick as an object of Rose and Ginny’s mutual temptation, and while Lear/Larry is sidelined for much of the drama, Robards cuts an imposing, cruel, but ultimately sad figure. On a side note, both Michelle Williams and Elisabeth Moss—two actresses who’d similarly go on to play women fighting against patriarchal toxicity in the likes of Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale, and My Week with Marilyn—appear as Rose’s daughters.
As suggested above, both American Quilt and A Thousand Acres serve as bridges between Moorhouse’s feature debut Proof and 2015’s The Dressmaker. Not only do American Quilt and A Thousand Acres mark a shift towards women-centred stories, but foreshadow a number of The Dressmaker’s themes and preoccupations, most notably the role of women at historical junctures favouring patriarchy and conformity and the trials of strong women shunned and ostracized by small-minded communities.
Next week: John Honey’s Manganinnie (1980) and James Ricketson’s Blackfellas (1993)