Dressmaker, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/28/16 09:11:51

"One size does not fit all."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

"The Dressmaker" feels like somebody had a script for a nasty, weird sort of film noir, but it was only an hour long, so they padded it out with charmingly quirky material that it was playing as twisted otherwise, and then bolted the two halves of the movie together in a way that doesn't work with either. Being eccentric in either direction might have made a memorable movie; trying to be both just makes a mess.

It starts memorably enough, as impeccably dressed Myrtle Dunnage (Kate Winslet), now going by Tilly, gets off the bus in her remote Australian hometown, declaring that she is back and remembered every horrible thing done to her as a child. She makes her way back to her old house, where mother "Mad Molly" (Judy Davis) doesn't recognize her but both Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) and handsome neighbor Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) do. In her time away, Tilly has become a brilliant seamstress and designer, but how will that help her get revenge - or discover whether she is really committed a murder as a child like people said?

The early scenes of The Dressmaker are as impressively vicious as it is off-kilter, from the flashbacks of kids being cruel to each other to the well-dressed femme fatale vowing revenge to how even an amusing bit of physical comedy comes with the acknowledgment that the funny old man has a long history of beating his wife. Even if there are explanations for why there seems to be such a gap in the Dunnages' memories as to just what Tilly did to be exiled (she was about ten and her mother has seriously deteriorated), it certainly feels like it's too dark to remember. How she'll be able to weaponize good taste and skill with a sewing machine to get her revenge is a fair question, but it's one that promises to be entertaining - even if being distractingly sexy seems a bit like an overused joke, an early scene where she's pulling golf tees out of loops integrated into her stylish dress like a bandolier (with her house on top of a hill, she can target the rest of the town with an accurate drive), or as former classmate Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) trades sharp, frank lines with Tilly while engaging her services. That's a scene that plays like film noir gangsters planning to work together despite past double-crosses, only it's about how she was mean as a kid and wanting a pretty dress.

That's a strange but inspired mix, and it suddenly seems like director Jocelyn Moorhouse and co-writer P.J. Hogan don't really know how to continue on this noir-ish track. That flash of harshness from Gertrude quickly seems like an aberration in an ugly-duckling subplot, and the midsection of the film feels much lighter - there's a certain bit of role-reversing fun in how Hemsworth's slab of trailer-dwelling beefcake may actually be kind of classy and well-read, a bit of nonsense about bringing in a rival dressmaker who isn't close to being in Tilly's class, and plenty of time for Tilly and Molly to reconnect. On its own, this material isn't bad, per se; it plays like a decent Lasse Hallsröm period piece and Moorhouse never actually shies away from the underlying tragedy in the characters' history. And yet, even though the emphasis and tone shifts like the tides rather than a hard break, a large portion of this movie feels like conventional quirkiness rather than the inspired juxtaposition of the earlier scenes, and getting back to the edgier material takes a certain amount of randomness.

Kate Winslet, therefore, is practically starring in two separate movies, and it's fairly impressive that she is able to give each of them what it needs with apparent ease. The middle part requires more conventional nuance, showing vulnerability and warmth as she tries to make herself once again part of her hometown, and she can do this sort of material with one arm tired behind her back. It's just nowhere near as much fun as her wearing a big-city dress in a small town and silently saying she outclasses all of these hicks, though she's still willing to destroy them - she's selling the apparently bizarre and mean in a way that nevertheless gets the audience behind Tilly. Not many in the rest of the cast reconcile the two modes so well, though - Liam Hemsworth is pleasingly amiable throughout, and Hugo Weaving's charming old queen is able to add a little gravitas when need be. Alison Whyte handles the transition better than most of the supporting cast, although Judy Davis and Sarah Snook certainly have some good moments.

It's a great-looking movie, at least, with special attention obviously going to costume designers Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson - Boyce setting the tone for the entire town and Wilson dressing Kate Winslet in a series of outfits that pop against the setting but don't ever remove her from it. The 1950s Australian setting is kind of perfect, firmly in the Twentieth Century but also feeling like it could be dropped into a Western almost unchanged, narrowing things into a showdown when necessary. There's some occasional visual oddities to go along with the script issues, but there's seldom a moment when Moorhouse and her crew don't make what could be a clashing genre mash-up into something that at least looks like something new.

If "The Dressmaker" had managed to stick close to the darkly comic, unconventional revenge story it starts as without diverting into more comfortably eccentric material, it wouldn't have been for a broad audience - it still would have been weird and lacked niceness - but it might at least have worked. As it is, I have a hard time seeing people who respond to one facet of the film noir being put off by the other. Either could have been a good movie, but the combination wins up being something less.

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