Writer-director Jocelyn Moorhouse hasn’t made a film in nearly two decades (1997’s “A Thousand Acres” was the last), and she seems to be trying to make up for lost time with this adaptation of a novel by Rosalie Ham. “The Dressmaker” isn’t really a single film—it’s a whole bunch of them rolled into one. A strange twist on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s revenge drama “The Visit” played as a dark comedy, it’s also a murder mystery, a romantic comedy, a tragedy, an expose of small-town mores, and an affecting tale of an estranged mother and daughter finding their way back to one another. Jammed into a two-hour span, the result is a something of a mess that moves jarringly from one genre to another, but though it never really comes together, it’s also weirdly entertaining.
The title character is Myrtle Dunnage (Kate Winslet), or Tilly, who returns to her dusty Australian home village, Dungatar, sometime in the mid-forties in a gorgeous dress of her own design after a stint in the Parisian fashion world. She forces her way back into the ramshackle house where her mother Molly (Judy Davis)—“Mad Molly” to the townspeople—lives as the town wacko. Molly claims not to recognize her daughter, and treats her like an interloper even as Tilly cleans up the place—and the old woman as well.
Others are soon drawn into her orbit—especially handsome neighbor Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), who’s cared for Molly in her absence and whose initial advances she resists; Sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaver), the local lawman who, being a secret cross-dresser, is astonished at her creations; and Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook), the ultra-plain daughter of general store owner Alvin (Shane Jacobson), for whom she makes a dress that (along with some cosmetic work) wins the eye of bachelor William Beaumont (James Mackay), who’s just moved back into town—although his socially-conscious mother Elsbeth (Caroline Goodall) is determined to keep them apart.
But Tilly also has enemies, left over from the incident that forced her from Dungatar when she was only ten (played in flashback by Darcey Wilson). She was accused of killing a classmate, Stewart (Rory Potter), the son of dictatorial town councilor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) and his put-upon, cleaning-nut wife Marigold (Alison Whyte)—at least according to testimony from the nasty schoolteacher Beulah Harridiene (Kerry Fox), who’s now a bitter old spinster. But because of her childhood trauma, Tilly can’t remember whether she actually killed the boy. Pettyman obviously still holds a grudge, and when Tilly is embraced as their dressmaker by the village women, he brings in rival designer Una Pleasance (Sacha Horler) to steal her customers. Another foe is the bent-over druggist Percival Almanac (Barry Otto), whose religious mania conceals a heart of stone but whose invalid wife Irma (Julia Blake), sitting constantly in a wheelchair on her stoop, is better natured.
What follows is the tale of how everything works out in this cartoonishly reverse Mayberry. By the end Tilly will have found out what really happened to Stewart, thanks to Teddy’s mentally challenged brother Barney (Gyton Grantley, played in flashback by Alex de Vos). She will also have reconnected with Molly, who becomes her greatest supporter (though still an outrageous crank), and will have developed a relationship with Teddy that promises wedded bliss. But the plot turns grow increasingly bleak as the picture enters its last act. While villainous characters will get their just deserts—as will the entire town (in this case, revenge isn’t served cold at all)—those that viewers have developed a real affection for don’t have an easy time of it, either.
It’s a given that “The Dressmaker” is wildly overdone, and that includes not just the style (by production designer Roger Ford, costume designer Marion Boyce and DP Donald M. McAlpine), but the performances. The most obvious example is Davis, who’s obviously enjoying playing something akin to an over-the-moon version of Ma Kettle (her reaction as she watches Gloria Swanson and William Holden in “Sunset Boulevard” is a high point), but all the secondary characters are portrayed in italics, as it were. It’s hard to resist Weaving’s turn as the feather-boa-loving constable, though, especially when Farrat makes a self-sacrificing gesture toward the close, and Otto is literally a walking sight gag as the aged chemist. By contrast Winslet and Hemsworth plays things relatively straight, though she certainly strikes some voluptuous poses when Tilly gets all dressed up for action (to observe a soccer match that turns into pure slapstick, for example).
Can this be described as a good film? Hardly—you might find yourself come close to gagging at the volume of quirkiness it delivers, and the twists of tone can be positively brutal. But like a brew with too many ingredients, it offers sporadically delicious moments, and for more adventurous viewers, it should prove at least a guilty pleasure.