In “The Dressmaker,” Kate Winslet plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, a seamstress who returns to her tiny Australian hometown, nursing a lifelong grudge against her former neighbors and hoisting a Singer sewing machine like a six-shooter.
Set in the early 1950s, this toxic tale of madness, mendacity, perversity and revenge is a manic, ultimately wearying pastiche of that era’s cinematic genres. One minute it’s quoting the twangy foreboding of spaghetti Westerns, the next it’s paying homage to moody noir thrillers. Adapted from Rosalie Ham’s novel by the director Jocelyn Moorhouse (who co-wrote the script with her husband, P.J. Hogan), “The Dressmaker” recalls the fable-like grotesqueries of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, interleaving witty deep focus shots and carefully designed and staged vignettes with repellent notions of human nature and behavior. More fatally, the filmmakers pay no attention to narrative or tonal coherence, instead trotting out wildly disconnected scenes that, at their best, bear little or no relation to what’s come before, and at their worst, are downright offensive (such as a marital rape scene that is played for laughs).
The details of Tilly’s misfortunes in the minuscule outpost called Dungatar eventually become clear, as do the reasons for her 25-year exile. Less logical are the reasons for her return. Granted, she wants to reconnect with her mother, a dotty, cantankerous old bat nicknamed Mad Molly (played with snaggle-toothed relish by the great Judy Davis). And, OK, she wants to avenge her mistreatment as a child, when the mayor, schoolteacher and sundry bullies and hangers-on framed her for an act she didn’t commit.
But if she’s so angry, why does she put her sewing talents to use by draping her erstwhile enemies in dazzling couture-like creations? And how are we supposed to believe that an ab-tastic love interest named Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) is remotely believable as her contemporary, let alone someone who didn’t just pop over from the set of a modern-day rom-com?
Such distractions aside, “The Dressmaker” looks great, thanks to Donald McAlpine’s superb cinematography and gorgeous costumes that make even Dungatar’s frumpiest denizens look like Richard Avedon models. Winslet makes a meal of her role as the wronged femme fatale, and both Davis and Hugo Weaving – who plays a crossdressing police sergeant – deliver wickedly funny performances as the town’s most colorful eccentrics.
But those bright spots don’t make up for what ultimately becomes a tiresome, increasingly nasty slog, especially when a crucial character is killed for no apparent reason other than to amp up the overarching feeling of embittered pessimism. Over-plotted, undercooked, and extremely well-dressed, “The Dressmaker” has style to burn, but it has a mean streak as wide as the Outback.
One and one-half stars. Rated R. Contains brief obscenity and a scene of violence. 118 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.