Push onward, though, and you’ll find that the movie changes its tone and style as often as our title heroine switches her fabrics. When The Dressmaker isn’t going for darkened screwball comedy, it attempts misty-eyed tragedy that’s tragic for tragedy’s sake, comeback story theatrics, and even bursts of horror movie depravity. When it’s tired of trying on its newest genre cave-in, it goes back to being the prettied-up, nervously nutso tale of vengeance it’s introduced as. But wouldn’t it be nice if Moorhouse, who hasn’t made a movie in nearly a decade, made the more centered, cohesive romp we’re immediately promised?
All is aflutter, and as a result we’re given too much to work with. The Dressmaker’s set in a desolate Australian town circa 1951, and its sights are set tightly on Tilly Dunnage (Winslet), a now-accomplished dressmaker back in town to take care of her dementia-addled, alcohol-dependent mother, Molly (Judy Davis). The return’s not a welcome one, however: 25 years earlier, Tilly was framed for the mysterious death of a classmate, and was banished from the town and sent to a mental institution.
In the years since, her frustrations have culminated. And the moment she steps off the train, she’s the best-dressed hellion in the region. She wants the people who destroyed her life to suffer as much as she has. But how exactly she’ll enact revenge on the townsfolk who allowed a 10-year-old to be exiled for a poorly investigated crime she doesn’t know. But what she does know is that she has a way with the sewing board and a way with words — and that she’ll manage to inflict damage somehow.
But that’s precisely where The Dressmaker falters: the “I’m back, you bastards” line assures us that we’re in for the most unexpected, delicious revenge movie of 2016. But once the movie’s supposed to be cooking up the quasi-Lady Snowblood (1973) shenanigans, it decides that maybe Tilly doesn’t want revenge after all. Maybe she’d rather start a romance with the steel-eyed town hunk (Liam Hemsworth). Maybe she’d rather rebuild her fragmented relationship with her mother, who spits and curses and accuses her daughter of rape just when she’s trying to help her take a bath. Maybe she’d rather look inside herself and try to move on from the depressing darkness that is her past, hurting no one in the process.
But this, of course, is a snooze. As great as Hemsworth is to gawk at and as great as it is to watch Davis chew the scenery as if it were a fun-sized Laffy Taffy, we have much more of a ball during the first few moments of The Dressmaker, when Winslet’s still a chain-smoking would-be Vogue cover star who only has retribution on the brain. The movie’d cause a commotion if it were centered around the latter tonality and kept Hemsworth and Davis around as eye candy and laugh barrels, respectively.
But Moorhouse figures that she ought to make The Dressmaker deeper, and more emotional, than it needs to be. It’s as if she thinks keeping the film a shameless popcorn feature would be a bad thing. Here’s what she doesn’t get: it wouldn’t.
The tornado of styles and moods automatically gets The Dressmaker billed a “weird” movie, but that shouldn’t suggest it isn’t without its charms. It has plenty, in fact, and the utmost one is Winslet, who gives one of her most vivacious performances. Decidedly, it’s imperfect. But its messiness is so buoyant, it’s of the excusable kind, like a law professor's office or a grade-school teacher's closet. B-
1 Hr., 54 Mins.
ocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker (2016) is never exactly what we think it’s going to be. Pre viewing, we’re certain this Kate Winslet vehicle will be trite Oscar bait, a saccharine story of a humble artist’s Hallmark-sweet impact on a small town a la Chocolat (2000). But sink our teeth into the first five minutes of the movie and it becomes something else entirely: a mischievous revenge movie clothed in the finest of Dior and the most wicked of dialogue. (“I’m back, you bastards” is just the first line.)