Sunday, March 24, 2013

American Dreams & British Nightmares: Jim O'Brien's The Dressmaker (1988)

Thanks to The Beatles, Liverpool has become something of a tourist haven, apparently second only to the Tower of London for sightseers in England. Ironically, the city's history is hardly a cause for celebration. For while Liverpool spawned The Beatles, The Beatles ultimately wished to break free of this seaport locale. Even so, one could always hear the character of Liverpool in their songs, the sense that as things could always get worse, they would find ways to make things better. That goal is also a characteristic germane to the city, a quality Alistair Cooke once described as "cheerful pessimism." The cause of that "cheerful pessimism," though, came directly from Liverpool's disparate economic and cultural life which begins in the 18th Century, when the slave trade from Africa became mixed with the cotton market from North America. When abolition became law in 1807, slaves were not allowed to land in England, but since cotton was sent to manufacturing cities like Manchester and Birmingham by railroad, other immigrants made their way to the jobs.

By 1820, the dockyards and the Cotton Exchange attracted close to 160,000 Irish immigrants from across the channel to make the kind of money they couldn't make in Ireland. But the Irish would also become the despised in Liverpool and were the victims of both unrest and hopelessness. During the Depression years, with the merger of the Cunard and White Stripe shipping lines, the luxury liner traffic was being rerouted to Southhampton. This decision changed the industrial base of Liverpool diminishing their economic status. The only way that they could retain their former status was by becoming the anchor of the country's naval operations. But that change inadvertently created an adverse effect when relentless German air raids lead to massive destruction. By 1941, thousands were killed and the city was reduced to rubble. After the war, it took years to relocate over ten thousand persons.

Liverpool in the Forties
During that period, Liverpool became part of a metropolitan area called Merseyside with a population of about a million and a quarter. When the U.S. entered the war, Americans were stationed there – and they were a source of great fascination for Liverpudlians. Given the hardship they'd endured under German bombs, the brash and stylish manner of Yankee soldiers represented something quite hopeful and exotic for locals to look up to and admire. "The people living within these confines saw the seaport as a threshold on the horizon," Beatles biographer Bob Spitz wrote. "Beyond it, an invisible world beckoned. Not a day passed when detachments of tall-masted ships weren't diligently on the move, bound for one of the globe's imagined corners." But during the mid-Forties, through all the devastation, the rationing, and the nightly rain of bombs and casualties, England's dreaming hadn't really grown beyond surviving on the obliterated streets in which they lived. So when the Americans came calling then, they were the objects of derision as much as envy. They were also a reminder of everything that Liverpool didn't have, even if they represented what Liverpudlians might truly want.

No movie caught the ambiguous corners of that conflict, where longings can also breed repression, better than Jim O'Brien's The Dressmaker (1988). John McGrath's script, which is based on Beryl Bainbridge's 1973 novel The Secret Glass, is set in Liverpool in 1944 during the nightly blackouts and food rations. The story centers on two sisters, Nellie (Joan Plowright), the dressmaker of the title, and Margo (Billie Whitelaw), the younger sibling, who works on an assembly line in a munitions plant. While Nellie makes other people's dreams come true with her assembly of dresses, she has no future dreams of her own. Nellie is basically a seething spinster who's rigidly devoted to past decorum and respectability, that is, the manners that she feels have been disrupted by the war. But her good taste serves as character armour to mask murderous rage. Margo is her opposite, boisterous, up for a song, and a good time gal looking for the next party. Yet she's also vulnerable to the watchful eye of her sister. While in Nellie's care, her husband had died from mustard gas poisoning suffered in World War One. On account of that tragedy, the sisters have continued to carry a simmering contempt for each other. At least, it simmers until they do battle over their meek 17-year-old niece Rita (Jane Horrocks), who was left in their care by her father (Pete Postlethwaite), after Rita's mother died. When Rita falls in love with Wesley (Tim Ransom), a young American soldier from Mississippi stationed in Liverpool, it ignites the tension between the two siblings.

Billie Whitelaw, Jane Horrocks and Joan Plowright
Like the character of the city itself, Rita is waging an inner war between freeing her desires to express her sexuality like Margo, or becoming as prudish and as hard as Nellie. Rita is strongly attracted to Wesley, who represents an exotic American to her. He's a symbol of the very freedom she dreams for. But she is also terrified of his sexual advances towards her. Since Nellie is a self-righteous custodian of old values, she becomes an emotionally suffocating presence in the house. Film critic Hal Hinson, in The Washington Post, described perfectly the priggish Nellie by defining her as a woman with "a streak of mania in her bustling...bent over her sewing table, her mouth stuffed with pins, she seems deranged, driven mad by her efforts to keep things stitched together." The desperate Rita goes to Margo for help because things for her are becoming emotionally and sexually unstitched. By doing so, she hopes that Margo will understand her fears and help her win Wesley. But Margo, despite her libidinous temperament, is too timid to stand up to the power of Nellie's disdain for her. Nellie naturally triumphs in the end.

It's easy to see how The Beatles could emerge out of the bone-chilling world depicted in The Dressmaker. While they are products of the repressive culture that Nellie represents, they also embraced the free-spiritedness of Margo, who has a striking resemblance to Julia, John Lennon's late mother. But there's something of Rita in The Beatles, too. It isn't her awkward shyness, or her forlorn whimpering that prevents her from sustaining joy; rather, it's in her strong desire to imagine a way out of the misery. Despite Wesley's continued attempts to break up their relationship by standing her up, never calling, or even flirting with Margo when he comes to family dinner, Rita still maintains the faith that he'll still one day want to hold her hand. As The Beatles looked beyond their own environment, to dream of a world where they could prevail, they had to carry the ghosts of the past that they also escaped from. In The Dressmaker, Rita often wakes up from horrible nightmares with hideous screams (until the end when she's silent), and they are screams that release her momentarily from a bad dream. But the scream is itself a manifestation of the kind of bad dream she won't escape. That scream would find its own release for The Beatles' in their shouts of freedom heard in "Twist and Shout" and "Money (That's What I Want)." But it would also find a different echo in John Lennon's twisted, painful moments towards the end of "Mother," on his solo 1970 Plastic Ono Band album, when his cries aren't about finding freedom, or even resolution. They were the screams of a man who, as Albert Goldman said in The Lives of John Lennon, couldn't get the past out of his system.
Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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