It starts out with a classic premise: prodigal daughter makes a splash in the world, and revisits the podunk town that spawned her to settle scores. But the patchwork pieces of social satire, slapstick comedy, love story, whodunit, and tragedy don’t quite fit together in The Dressmaker. There are several moments when I actually laughed out loud, and others that are touchingly heartfelt. But as a complete design, the filmmakers never quite make it work.
Based on the 2000 novel by Australian author Rosalie Ham, the movie is directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, from a script she co-wrote with her husband, filmmaker P. J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding). The story is set in a crumbling, dust-choked rural town at the end of the train line, far out in the Australian outback. With its enormous skies and parched landscape, the town looks like an abandoned set from a vintage Western movie. One night in 1951, a lone woman steps off the midnight train with a Singer sewing machine, a cigarette case, a drop-dead chic outfit, and a quest.
She is Tilly (formerly Myrtle) Dunnage (Kate Winslet), who was exiled from town under sinister circumstances as a 10-year-old girl. She’s returned to check up on her mother, who’s become a curmudgeonly old recluse the locals call “Mad Molly” (Judy Davis). Although her addled mum claims to not know who she is, Tilly cleans up her neglected sty of a house and sets up shop as a seamstress—drawing from the experience she’s acquired in the fashion houses of Paris, London, and Spain.
But there’s more than filial duty to Tilly’s unexpected visit. Rumor has it that she committed a murder when she was a child; Tilly doesn’t remember it, and her mum isn’t much help, but the town’s haughtiest movers and shakers (such as they are) still condemn her for it. Her only ally is Sgt. Farat (Hugo Weaving), the town’s only constable, who befriends her because he has a secret fetish for fine fabrics.
Nevertheless, when Tilly whips up a gown that transforms mousy Gert (Sarah Snook) into a ravishing beauty, even the snootiest local women start clamoring to join her client list. Meanwhile, Tilly is romanced by sexy footballer Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), eldest son of a neighboring farm family, who claims he doesn’t believe in the “curse” she thinks haunts her life.
There are some lovely moments. When Gert wows the locals at a dance in a gown concocted by Tilly, and a woman coos, “She looks like a movie star,” Moorhouse cuts to Gloria Swanson at her most psycho in Sunset Boulevard, playing at the local movie house. When Teddy takes off his shirt to be measured for a suit, Tilly and Molly’s disparate reactions are pretty funny (although the most entertaining expressions of glee I heard were from the audience).
Winslet is worth watching, as always. Her Tilly is as hard-boiled as she needs to be to get to the truth of her past, but still vulnerable about what she might discover. The scene where she disrupts a neighborhood football match by appearing in a scarlet sheath dress is a little corny, but Winslet rocks it.
But, like a pair of stiletto heels in the desert, the movie can’t quite keep its footing. While we keep expecting the story to go deeper, the plotting and the psychology remain pretty much on the surface—and mostly played for laughs. A couple of gruesome deaths, of the black-comedy variety, contribute to the cartoon atmosphere, so we’re left floundering the one or two times that the movie switches gears and expects to be taken seriously. One might argue that, in real life, comedy and tragedy exist side-by-side, but nothing else in this movie resembles real life.
Finally, the slapstick gooniness of the townsfolk make us wonder if confronting them was worth all the trouble for Tilly—the Paris couturier—to return at all. When a movie invites you to question its very reason for being, there’s something wrong in the design.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, and Liam Hemsworth. Written by P. J. Hogan and Jocelyn Moorhouse. From the novel by Rosalie Ham. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. A Broadgreen Pictures release. Rated R. 119 minutes.