Kate Winslet can do anything … except save this movie from quirky overkill. The Dressmaker, based on a 2000 novel by Rosalie Ham, gives the actress a hell of a role. She’s Tilly Dunnage, a 1950’s fashionista who’s decided to return home to dusty Dungatar (an apt name), the small Aussie town that spawned her. Tilly got run out of Dungatar 20 years ago, when she was just a 10 year-old, for allegedly murdering her schoolmate Stewart Pettyman. Everyone believes she bashed the kid’s skull in – including her snaggle-toothed old mum, Molly (Judy Davis, deep bows), who the townsfolk call Mad Molly and not for nothing. Tilly decides to open shop and do fashion makeovers on the town’s dowdiest women. “I’m back, you bastards,” the pariah says, busting out a trunk of fabrics from Paris. Some are thrilled. But not Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne), the dead boy’s father who lords it over the town and his put-upon wife (Alison Whyte).
You might be wondering why Tilly, who looks absolutely fabulous, is bothering to spiff up her former tormentors. Simple. She wants to know what really happened. Tilly was so traumatized back in the day that she can’t remember if she killed Stewart or not. It’s a potentially gripping set-up, concocted by director Jocelyn Moorhouse with her co-writer husband P.J. Hogan. The Dressmaker is a homecoming — not just for Tilly, but for Moorhouse who hasn’t directed a movie in almost 20 years. After a smashing Aussie debut with 1991’s Proof, Moorhouse worked in Hollywood with scant success on How To Make an American Quilt (1995) and A Thousand Acres (1997). The filmmaker’s vitality hasn’t dimmed with the years. It’s good to have her back.
The problem with The Dressmaker, both the book and the film, is that it doesn’t know when or how to stop. One bizarre character after another is introduced. It’s an eccentricity pile-up, played by a team of Aussie all-stars. I was fine with Hugo Weaving as Farrat, the cross-dressing police sergeant. And Liam Hemsworth, of all people, has some sweet moments as Teddy McSwiney, the hottie soccer hero who falls for Tilly. But, oh, the crazyass parade: a religious fanatic (Barry Otto), a spinster schoolteacter (Kerry Fox), a dressmaking rival (Sacha Horler), an amateur production of Macbeth, an accidental death, a not-so-accidental murder, an explosion, and various events all set to a relentlessly irritating score by David Hirschfelder. It’s too much. The scenes between Winslet and Davis, especially a visit to local a moviehouse to see Sunset Blvd., almost make up for it. But with this A-list crew, almost doesn’t cut it. It’s not good news when a movie called The Dressmaker doesn’t hang together.