With The Dressmaker, director Jocelyn Moorhouse gets a little “Quentin Tarantino” in her “theater noir,” only to have a dingo rip the thing to shreds, leaving only the haplessly taped-together remains (translation: it’s a tonal mess). This movie is bonkers, and – as I’m told – incredibly Australian. Not hard to assess, given the heavy-handed Wild-West-meets-Outback theme, but never in a pulpy, small-town-crazy stretch of endearment. Coincidentally, all those lavish gowns that Moorhouse’s titular heroine flawlessly sews together represent everything this film is not – carefully crafted, seamlessly connected art.
Kate Winslet stars as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who returns to the dusty Australia wasteland of Dungatar for the first time in years. Her mother, “Mad” Molly Dunnage (Judy Davis), doesn’t recognize her due to senility (or a selective memory), and the townsfolk gasp when they learn of Tilly’s return. You see, Tilly was taken away at a young age after being accused of murdering a classmate, but she’s back, and looking for the truth. She knows no crimes were committed that day, but cannot announce her innocence without proof. So, with revenge on her mind and a sewing kit at her disposal, Tilly wins over the local females with gorgeous day and night wear – a tactic of bartering that grants her access to all social circles. Can Tilly show those Dungatar heathens who’s right? Or will she just run away with the dreamy Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) like she probably should…
There’s no denying that Kate Winslet keys into a stunning genre dame who steals gazes through beauty, and manipulates through skill. She pulls off a very modern-day witch vibe through sexual hypnosis (without needing physical actions), yet wilts like a vulnerable flower the few times emotions become overwhelming. Tilly is a tough cookie, seen driving golf balls towards her marked targets in town (“There’s the Chemist…” and WHAM – a thud on his roof), whose charms distract men in her cartoonisly-transfixing fashion. At her most dashingly Peggy-Sue (1950s with attitude), Winslet somehow makes The Dressmaker seem much more fun than it ever actually is.
Moorhouse has absolutely no grip on P.J. Hogan’s adapted screenplay of Rosalie Ham’s source novelization, in a tonally catastrophic kind of way. Is Hugo Weaving devilishly divine as a fashion-obsesses lawman who practically orgasms at the sight of feather boas? Fabulous. Does Judy Davis heroically hit on Liam Hemsworth without shame and backtalk with zippy grandma sass? Favorably. But we’re not quite sure how these flamboyant players fit together with a “villain” who takes advantage of his wife when she’s asleep (like, mid comical montage), or a sense of pacing that kills main characters only halfway through Tilly’s soul-searching rebirth. Scenes fit together like square pegs mashed in circular holes, favoring momentary successes over big-picture victories.
Tilly’s revenge arc encapsulates many of the film’s stumbling blocks in and of itself. Upon its first introduction, Tilly clearly lays a vendetta against the town – but then it’s forgotten. Dresses start being crafted, Teddy casts his manly spell, and Tilly finds herself expressing old joys with her gifted hands. Revenge is totally ignored, until an unfortunate Sorghum accident leaves Tilly in a spiteful, city-burning rage that ends with a red carpet being rolled out for the red-hot sheila. Tilly goes out with a bang, but not without raising questions like “what in the fuck is happening,” “why is she suddenly all revenge-y again,” and “holy crap, what weird period in cinema have I been transported back to?”
The Dressmaker feels like it’s from a bygone era, complete with simpleton sidekicks, unsympathetic attacks and a soap-opera-on-crack vibe that’s all about reactions, and light on build-ups. What one might define as “zany” or “madcap” comes across as “dated” and “out of touch.” Guitar-twanging slapstick meets female heroics married with a Fabio-covered romantic sleaze novel? Something like that, except the sleaze is substituted with forced romanticism, major plot points dance in and out of relevance, and the whole thing runs about thirty minutes longer than it should.
Jocelyn Moorhouse has created…something. That’s for damn sure. This isn’t Annie Get Your Gun, but Tilly Get Your Sewing Machine. A lone heroine who returns to her dusty, beaten-up town, turning the women into regal princesses through nimble fingers, all with the thought of revenge on her mind. Seems…sensible? *Slaps face* No, no it doesn’t. You’ll want to love this rootin-tootin fashonista piece more than you will, because there’s such a bouncy airlessness to it all – but it drags, and bores, and telegraphs like a theater production. The Dressmaker is one of the year’s strangest films, and surprisingly, will also be one of its most divisive. God bless the fans who eat this up like roadkill stew, because it deserves some kind of recognition – just from the right audiences.
Despite Winslet's stunning cowgirl fashionista, The Dressmaker is a whole lot of weirdness packed into a story that stumbles around like an emotionally-inept drunk.