mon 04/03/2024

A Stitch in Time review - feelgood Aussie indie with an undernourished script | reviews, news & interviews

A Stitch in Time review - feelgood Aussie indie with an undernourished script

A Stitch in Time review - feelgood Aussie indie with an undernourished script

An elderly woman's pursuit of lost dreams is given a light-touch treatment

A new thread: Hoa Xuande and Maggie Blinco in 'A Stitch in Time'

There’s a faint whiff of Strictly Ballroom about Sasha Hadden’s Australian indie A Stitch in Time, another tale of people in later life rekindling lost dreams and a long-buried love while nurturing younger folk with the same passions. Here, though, this love is expressed in dressmaking rather than foxtrots and quicksteps. 

Hadden’s film is smaller-scale in its ambitions than Baz Luhrmann’s, not rising far above the feelgood. Which is a shame as it has an appealing central performance from Maggie Blinco as Liebe (yes, the German word for love), a repressed dressmaker in her seventies. She is the dutiful partner of Duncan, a boorish singer-songwriter (musician Glenn Shorrock, pictured below) whose repertoire, like their relationship, has lost its zing. 

His persistent cough signals to us from the start that Duncan is possibly not long for this earth. In the very first scene, it spoils his lacklustre performance in a down-at-heel Sydney club, where the audience is composed of a flirtatious buxom blonde and Liebe. He rows with the club owner and storms home to concentrate on a mythical solo album. This move, though, puts him on a collision course with Liebe and her ancient, noisy sewing machine. 

When Duncan accuses her of ruining his songwriting time and sabotaging his career, they row and soon Liebe has fled to stay with her long-lost bestie, Christine (Brenda Giblin), a comfortably off suburbanite with a grouchy, conservative husband, Justin (John Gregg), who had left Duncan’s band early on but is still blamed by him for its lack of success. Justin, too, finds Liebe’s sewing a nuisance. 

Her white knight comes in the form of a charming young Chinese man, Hamish (Hoa Xuande), a wannabe fashion designer who sells clothing on a market stall. He admires the homemade dress she is wearing and encourages her to make more for sale. Liebe is now nudged onto a wholly different path, ending up in a house-share with young Chinese students. They sleep like sardines on the living-room floor, living on instant noodles, while she dosses down in the garage.

There is some fertile ground here potentially, and some solid acting talent to cultivate it. Hadden has the plight of Asian immigrants in his sights, as well as the trump card of making Liebe a Holocaust survivor who had left Germany for the UK on a Kindertransport ship, then moved on to Australia after the war, sole remnant of her family. She represents not just the old Europe but old values, in every sense, a woman who believes in putting beauty ahead of profit. She hand-sews unique dresses; Hamish plans “limited editions” of 80 dresses made in China.

He is amazed that, in her dedication to beauty, Liebe buys an expensive roll of jacquard at her favoured fabric shop, run by an elderly Jewish woman (Ellen Greenfield, an actual Holocaust survivor and the store's real owner); the roll is, like Liebe, a sole remnant. Hamish’s new-world values extend to showing her how to market her clothes online on her flatmates’ laptop; she in turn cooks food for them and becomes, belatedly, a mother figure. (Pictured below: Maggie Blinco, Hoa Xuande)

But there's an underlying cheeriness to the action, a determination to stick to the sunnier side of life. Liebe has clearly undergone horrendous trauma growing up, but it’s not something the script wants to dwell on; there’s a scene where she falls asleep all day on a park bench and tells Hamish, who has been anxiously looking for her, that she had been having dreams of being ill and homesick on the ship to Britain as a 13-year-old. Then the theme of migration recurs briefly when TV news reports show Angela Merkel's controversial welcoming of immigrants to Germany, a sight Liebe admits she never thought she’d see. But that's as far as the film goes in probing her past. Hers is an almost secret sorrow, as if it’s bad form to mention it in public.

Ditto her unhappy life with Duncan, who has had numerous affairs and has treated her with a brutal lack of sympathy for half a decade. The film tries to reverse this in its final reel, but Liebe’s loyalty to him still feels misguided, perhaps more to be pitied than admired. The film climaxes with an attempt to restore their old love that’s intended to be tearjerking but made me wince. Only the integrity of Blinco’s performance keeps things afloat. 

Her relationship with Hamish, too, is relatively anodyne: more mother and adopted son than Harold and Maude and its queasy sexual undercurrents. I yearned for just one extreme or subversive character, the kind of suburban grotesque Australian cinema and, increasingly, television actually do well (examples are Ashley’s grim, self-absorbed mother in Colin From Accounts and bullying Kingsley in The Newsreader). And where are the members of the First Nation? They get a small nod when one buys a dress from Liebe, or rather, is given a dress by her – she is unwilling to take payment as the girl can’t afford it – but clearly could be sharing Liebe’s sense of having lost her true home. 

It's another perfectly pleasant film for a rainy day by the TV, but I wanted it to grow small but perceptible teeth.

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