Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse has had an odd career. After making an auspicious home-turf debut with 1991’s Proof — about a blind photographer, his housekeeper and his best friend (played by Russell Crowe) — she offered up gloppy back-to-back slices of deep-dish Americana: one sweet (the Winona Ryder-led ensemble piece How to Make an American Quilt), one sour (her adaptation of Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange).
Following an 18-year hiatus, Moorhouse is behind the camera — and down under — again, though it would be a stretch to say that The Dressmaker, based on the book by Rosalie Ham and starring Kate Winslet, is the comeback she needs. That doesn’t mean this incorrigibly silly movie about a ’50s fashionista who returns to wreak havoc on her outback hometown isn’t fun; much of it is, mostly in that what-on-earth-were-they-thinking kind of way. Indeed, little here “works” in any traditional sense of that word, but the film boasts enough manic energy and straight-up weirdness to keep you entertained before overstaying its welcome in the final act.
The story opens with Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (Winslet) arriving in the dusty village of Dungatar, setting down her suitcase, lighting a cigarette and, to the strains of gunslingerish music, muttering, “I’m back, you bastards.” Those who think they’re in for a stylized feminist Western, guess again: The Dressmaker will switch gears and genres about a dozen times before the end credits roll, not so much blending as lurching between rom-com, melodrama, whodunit, screwball, film noir and more. It’s a strange cocktail — think Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat spiked with John Waters’ Serial Mom — and Moorhouse and writing partner P.J. Hogan (director of Confessions of a Shopaholic) find some pungent flavors amid the tropes, cliches and pastiche. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t ultimately leave you with a hangover.
Gradually, our heroine’s backstory emerges, and it’s a doozy: Tilly was booted from Dungatar at age 10 for allegedly murdering a bullying classmate. Though she seems to be suffering from some kind of post-traumatic amnesia that prevents her from recalling exactly what happened to cause the child’s death, Tilly senses she’s innocent — and she wants to get back at the people who wronged her.
Really, though, the most compelling thing about Tilly’s homecoming is her reunion with her mother, Molly, a crusty old crank played with scenery-gobbling glee by Judy Davis. Molly seems to have memory problems of her own: First, she claims not to remember Tilly; then, once she does, she’s convinced her daughter is a cold-blooded killer. Davis’ snaggletoothed snarling and slapsticky scuffling with Winslet are worth the price of admission alone.
But back to that plot — while she’s home, Tilly, who trained as a dressmaker in Paris and struts through town in showstopping, curve-cradling couture, takes it upon herself to transform Dungatar’s frumpiest female denizens into glamour-pusses. How that fits in with her revenge scheme is never quite clear, but logic be damned, The Dressmaker has more pressing things on its mind — like Liam Hemsworth’s torso, for instance.
The actor plays a local Adonis named Teddy (in the film’s most impressive feat of imagination, he’s meant to be the same age as Tilly), who, at one point, disrobes so Tilly can fit him for a custom-made suit. As the haunting South Pacific standard “Bali Hai” plays on the radio, Winslet moves in on Hemsworth’s bare chest with her measuring tape and he whispers sweet nothings in her ear as she works. Giggle away, but it’s a genuinely swoon-worthy moment.
That scene, and a handful of others — like one in which Tilly and Teddy take Molly to see Sunset Boulevard, and she heckles and howls at the screen — are charming and clever enough to make you wish the movie were a bit less of a mess. Sure, the zany tonal mishmash is engaging for a while, and it’s amusing to see Tilly make over the dowdy townswomen, encouraging them to trade in burlappy grays and browns for bold colors and sharp lines. Winslet hams it up gamely in femme fatale mode, and Hugo Weaving’s cross-dressing police sergeant is a pleasingly campy touch.
But between the mother-daughter shtick, the fashion stuff, the revenge, the romance and the mystery of who killed the little boy many years ago, there’s just too much going on in The Dressmaker. By the time a rival couturiere (played by Sacha Horler) arrives on the scene, the movie has so many plates spinning at so many different speeds that you start wondering what, exactly, Moorhouse was hoping to accomplish. Some of the problem seems to come from the source material: The story’s melodrama-streaked final stretch, with its pile-up of tragic twists, is a drag, and the gender politics are all over the map (the film equates sexiness with empowerment, and essentially every woman onscreen, except for Tilly, is a shrew).
Moorhouse is a slick, proficient craftsman, and she and DP Donald McAlpine use close-ups and slightly cartoonish compositions (high- and low-angle shots) to give the movie a touch of the baroque. David Hirschfelder’s score is sprightly, if familiar-sounding. The supporting players, notably Sarah Snook and Kerry Fox, are energetic and skilled. The Dressmaker is about as far from essential viewing as one could imagine, but, for all its brightly glaring flaws, much of it qualifies as a glossy, goofy guilty pleasure.
Production companies: Apollo Media, Film Art Media, Screen Australia
Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Julia Blake, Shane Bourne, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Caroline Goodall
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Writers: Jocelyn Moorhouse, P.J. Hogan (based on the novel by Rosalie Ham)
Producer: Sue Maslin
Executive producers: Gavin Poolman, Michael Shyjka, Tim Haslam, Hugo Grumbar, Ian Kirk, Roger Savage, Karl Engeler, Greg Sitch, Fred Gaines, P.J. Hogan, Daryl Dellora
Director of photography: Donald M. McAlpine
Production designer: Roger Ford
Editor: Jill Bilcock
Costume designer: Marion Boyce
Casting: Christine King