“Walk like you have three men walking behind you,” Oscar de la Renta once said, and when Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns to the tiny, backwater town of Dungatar she certainly turns heads, but not particularly for the right reasons. The young men take note of the devastatingly beautiful and curvaceous woman the likes of which they’ve never seen, but the older folks eye Tilly with a sinister memory in mind: they believe she’s a murderer. Accused of killing a classmate when she was in grade school, Tilly was sent away, and eventually wound up abroad working in the finest houses of haute couture, but now she’s back to clear her conscience, find out what really happened, and in the process expose and turn upside down all the small town hypocrisy that has ruled life in Dungatar until now.
She arrives at the home of her mother Molly (Judy Davis), to find she’s gone all “Grey Gardens,” and is extremely reluctant to communicate with her daughter about anything involving the past, which she appears to have long since buried. Unable to get the answers she wants from Molly, Tilly hopes to reintegrate herself into the town with her skills on the Singer. After she transforms Plain Jane Gertrude (Sarah Snook) into Dungatar’s most eligible single woman, it seems the women in town are quick to forget whatever happened before for vanity’s sake, knocking on her door to order new attire. But that goodwill only lasts so long and soon the battle lines are drawn in what becomes a bitter scrum for the truth.
On Tilly’s side is her mother Molly; the closeted, but completely flamboyant town cop Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving); the hunky, handsome, love interest Teddy (Liam Hemsworth); and by default his Gilbert Grape-esque mentally challenged brother Barney (Gyton Grantley). However, the rest of Dungatar are wary of Tilly including: the crazed religious fanatic pharmacist/town doctor Mr. Almanac (Barry Otto); the vindictive and abusive schoolteacher Beulah (Kerry Fox); and philandering town councilor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne), the father of the boy Tilly is supposed to have killed, who has long kept his shattered, agoraphobic wife Marigold (Alison Whyte) in the dark about what really happened to their son.
Penned by P.J. Hogan (“Muriel’s Wedding,” “Mental”) it’s hard to accurately describe the absolutely bonkers tone of the movie. The plotting moves along with the speedy efficiency of an airport novel, while broad, one stroke characters and mostly good-natured comedy makes this mostly Mom-tertainment approved. The execution by director Jocelyn Moorehouse (“How To Make An American Quilt”) mostly works at first (bar an absolutely incongruous rape scene), but the film’s second half which piles on major plot twists, romances, a fashion competition, a grand act of vengeance, deaths, heavy drama and more, suddenly finds the movie flailing out in a series of shifting moods that clash clangingly against one another, as the picture’s pace starts to drag as the story struggles to find some kind of resolution.
That “The Dressmaker” remains watchable in any sense is thanks in large part to a cast who give the material that’s way beneath them far better treatment than it deserves. Winslet anchors the lead role with sexiness and confidence, staying measured even the movie around her isn’t, which allows the actress to transition more easily into the heavier elements later in the picture. However, it’s Davis who winds up stealing most of the scenes, hilarious at Tilly’s eccentric oddball mother, and like Winslet, her performance is balanced enough that her role doesn’t fall into a one note trope. Weaving gets some good laughs as a man of the law whose only weakness is fine fabrics, while “The Dressmaker” might be the most easily charming I’ve ever seen Hemsworth. Unfortunately, much of that fine work is forced to contend with a script that doesn’t afford the supporting ensemble the same luxury, leaving “The Dressmaker” as an assemblage of pretty divergent styles. The festival’s optimistic description of the movie as a hybrid of “Chocolat,” “Dogville,” and “Unforgiven” is a pretty good idea of what you’ll be getting into, but it’s not even close to as seamless as Tilly’s impeccable sewing skills.
“The Dressmaker” wants to be a saucy and absurd tale of small town scandal, only to then attempt to try and turn the story completely inside out. It’s a potentially interesting concept, but movie never commits to that transition. Thus, the latter half of the movie is punctuated by comedic moments that increasingly feel out of the place, and vice versa, with the serious moments early on jarring against the overall lightness of touch. I’ll spare you concluding this with a fashion metaphor, but instead I’ll turn to something said by Coco Chanel: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” “The Dressmaker” would’ve been well served to remove at least five. [C]