An unholy mix of revenge comedy, spaghetti Western and lesser Tim Burton, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s “The Dressmaker” bizarrely adapts Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel of the same name, stitching the popular Gothic romance into a film that’s less a fine piece of dressmaking and more a Frankenstein’s monster of missed opportunities. Fine performances by Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth and Judy Davis help matters a bit, but the final product is so oddly cobbled together that the entire thing should be left hanging on the rack.
The film does afford Winslet the chance to play a compellingly strange character, and she leads the cast as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who was sent away from the tiny Australian town of Dungatar when she was just a kid. The reasons for Tilly’s forced exile are clear soon enough — she was accused of killing a classmate and was shoved out of the town by a cadre of meddling townspeople and one seriously screwed up mayor — but why those issues are coming to the fore now, after so many years away, is a narrative mystery that Moorhouse and co-writer P.J. Hogan never address. After her time away in a boarding school, Tilly has turned herself into a successful dressmaker (naturally), and she arrives in dusty Dungatar with a trunk full of spectacular outfits and a shiny Singer sewing machine at the ready to make more.
Tilly’s reasons for coming home are twofold: To discover if she really is a murderer (again, this is an incident that happened decades earlier and has shaded her entire life, why it’s important to investigate now is never explained) and to get her crazy old mother (Judy Davis) to recognize her. Along the way, she must battle her own belief that she is cursed and attempt to overcome years of emotional abuse at the hands of the rest of the Dungatar population. One way to heal things up? By making the people that ruined her life look good, kitting them out in her finest creations. At the very least, “The Dressmaker” boasts some of the most lush, imaginative costumes of the year, even if everything else is almost too ugly to be believed.
Tilly is a murderer, at least she’d fit in better in Dungatar, a tiny dung heap of a small town populated by deviants, rapists, dilettantes, adulterers, child abusers and just plain terrible people. Why Tilly would come back to a hometown filled with people who hate her is one thing, why she’d ever set foot in a cesspool like Dungatar is entirely another issue. (And that most of the crimes of the rest of the town’s population are played for laughs — including a scene of unquestionable rape — is even more baffling.)
Despite the straightforward nature of the film’s first act, it soon spirals out into wacky fantasy and an unearned bent towards magical realism. It’s like if someone saw “Big Fish,” but was convinced that it would be improved upon by a cast of horrible people (whose motivations are never quite clear) and worse narrative structure. Although Winslet holds on admirably tight to her character arc, the rest of Dungatar proper vacillate wildly between good and evil, accepting Tilly and shunning her, going full-on crazy and playing it deadly straight (the one steady supporting actor is Liam Hemsworth, who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as Tilly’s love interest, Teddy). Odd moments are played up for laughs (again, rape, also murder), and it’s impossible to get any sort of footing in the strange, sick world of the film.
Although the wobbly, off-kilter tone of “The Dressmaker” mostly fails to come together, there is one sequence, which sees hometown girl Gert (Sarah Snook) running wildly across town from a competing “Le Salon” of sartorial horrors to get to Tilly in time to save her truly awful wedding dress, which effectively illustrates what could have been in the rest of the film: A dizzy, strange and very funny mishmash of humor and character insight. That scene is stitched together just right, fresh and fun, fashionably unique — if only the rest of the film could employ such craftsmanship.
“The Dressmaker” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015.