NEW YORK — SOMETIMES a movie is made by its acting - by first-rate performers just getting up in front of the camera and letting their talent run free. ``The Dressmaker'' is one of these. Its story is nothing special, and its settings are anything but glamorous. There's real pleasure in watching its performances, though, which are as lifelike and vivid as anything a film has given us lately.
``The Dressmaker'' takes place in 1944. The setting is Liverpool, England, and the main characters are three women of two generations. Rita is a 17-year-old, facing problems of life and love that aren't unusual for teen-agers, especially in the movies. She lives with two middle-aged aunts, who raised her and are now trying to guide her into adult life.
The problem is, these two ladies can't agree on many things - including tough questions like ``What should a nice girl do on a date?'' and ``Should Rita keep seeing the dim-witted American soldier who's been paying so much attention to her?''
Rita herself is confused about these things, and when she turns to her aunts for guidance, she gets nothing but mixed signals. One says you can't be too careful about being proper. But the other says you shouldn't pay attention to grownups: They say the things they're supposed to say, and youngsters are supposed to disobey now and then. Meanwhile the ever-hopeful GI is on the sidelines waiting for Rita to respond a little to his passion.
These characters are no more attractive than Liverpool itself during the World War II period - it appears to be a drab and chilly place, with few comforts and no luxuries to offer.
What makes Rita and the others so fascinating to spend time with is the way they're acted, by performers who bring their joys and sorrows to life without ever condescending to them or making their behavior seem ridiculous.
The old pros of the movie are Joan Plowright and Billie Whitelaw, two fine British actresses with a talent for making the ordinary seem extraordinary. It's no surprise to see them give superb performances, but the movie's extra treat is a newcomer named Jane Horrocks, who gives Rita an amazingly complex personality beneath her oh-so-plain exterior. She's an actress of unusual talent, and I'm sure we'll see more of her before long.
Even with its excellent acting, ``The Dressmaker'' seems kind of stodgy at first, with its main characters always chattering about a party or a date that seem more important to them than to us. But the movie isn't as timid as it may appear.
It includes some nudity, and a last-minute story twist that's downright melodramatic - leading to a final scene that's the best thing in the whole picture.
Directed by Jim O'Brien, a capable British filmmaker, ``The Dressmaker'' is a small but impressive movie that hits you hardest when you least expect it.