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.