‘The Dressmaker’ is all over the place as a movie and that’s what makes it both so entertaining and so off-putting. Returning to the director’s chair for the first time since the 1990s, Jocelyn Moorhouse (‘How to Make an American Quilt’) seems to want to make up for lost time by making several movies at once.
Is this a Spaghetti Western influenced revenge tale or a melodramatic 1950s women’s picture? Is it comedy or drama? Slapstick or tragedy? From scene to scene, that’s impossible to predict. It’s everything at once, and somehow that feels both way too overstuffed and also just right.
Things start strong. Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) emerges from a train station overlooking a tiny Australian town in vast Leone-esque widescreen imagery and announces, “I’m back, you bastards.” Years ago, as a young girl, she was involved in a tragedy that shook the community, leading to her banishment. Now she’s indeed back as promised and she has a plan. She will tear this backwater gang of weirdoes apart through spectacular dressmaking and fashion sense that will destroy their crusty old values. Errr… yeah… sure. That should work. Oh boy does it ever. Soon, as tends to happen in these sorts of stories, every member of the community turns out to have some sort of dirty secret just itching to be revealed.
The movie feels pulled from the ’90s in a number of ways, not just its director who has been absent from filmmaking since then. A number of Australian comedies in that era veered wildly from comedy to teary melodrama, including ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ (that movie’s star Hugo Weaving appears here and cross-dressing is once again part of his character) and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’. (Not coincidentally, ‘Muriel’ screenwriter P.J. Hogan wrote this as well.) ‘The Dressmaker’ very much fits into that school of regional film comedy, and then tosses in some wild unexpected bursts of violence a la Tarantino. It’s a throwback picture in many ways, and director Moorhouse delights in making visual references to everything from glossy Hollywood melodrama to cheap Italian exploitation. Visually, the movie is a stunner. Tonally, it’s all over the map. As fun as that can be at times, it gets repetitively predictable.
The cast is a mixed bag as well. Winslet is obviously remarkable as a grounding force at the center. She smirks through the humor and delights in the shock value, but keeps everything grounded as a genuinely tragic and pained woman in an impressive balancing act. Judy Davis is equally delightful as her crusty mother, but in a much different way that completely eschews realism in favor of a comedic monstrosity. Other than those two, however, the performances are either overly arch (like Hugo Weaving, though to be fair “overly arch” could be used to describe his best work as well) or paralyzing bland (Liam “the other” Hemsworth doing his usual cardboard hero thing). Sometimes it feels like the actors aren’t sure what type of movie they’re in. Given that viewers are likely to experience the same confusion, that’s at least understandable.
Ultimately, ‘The Dressmaker’ is a bizarre cinematic experiment easier to admire than genuinely enjoy. It’s a beautifully made production filled with striking visuals, and the combination of tones and genres is at least intellectually satisfying, but something about the way all the diverse ideas and images clash together in the final product just doesn’t quite feel right. The tragic core never registers thanks to all the cartoon characters telling it, and the laughs wear off once everyone gets all somber and violent. Still, it’s hard not to be at least mildly impressed by the ways the film attempts to do so much and on such a large scale for a small movie. There’s plenty going on here to be impressed by. Too bad it never quite comes together.