This eccentric comedy/drama features Kate Winslet as a fashion designer who returns to her Australian home town to learn about her past — only to find the charms of Liam Hemsworth
Starring: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth
Directed by: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Running time: 119 minutes
Rating: 2½ stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
The eccentric comedy/drama The Dressmaker is like an Australian spaghetti Western, except that the hero is a glamorous woman who arrives in a dusty small town armed with only a sewing machine: the fastest needle-and-thread in the Antipodes. “I’m back, you bastards,” she says, and soon she will begin to take revenge on the town — the place of her birth, we learn, from which she was sent away as a child — by dressing its inhabitants in gorgeous knock-offs of Dior and Chanel that bring out their inner beauty, heretofore hidden under layers of dust, nastiness and bad dentistry.
The townfolk are a mostly unhappy lot of surreal characters — a pharmacist who is bent over double from scoliosis, which prevents him from continuing to beat his wife, or the local policeman, an otherwise conventional sort who is an enthusiastic transvestite who is thrilled by the arrival of so much shiny fabric — who seem drawn from something by Wes Anderson. Imagine Amelie, but starring Clint Eastwood in drag.
So what to make of all this? Well, it has a good cast. The dressmaker, Tilly Dunnage, is played by Kate Winslet, whom most us first met in the 1994 mystery Beautiful Creatures, where she played a child murderer. Tilly, it turns out, is also a killer, or at least she thinks so. “Did I commit murder?,” she asks her fabulously blowsy mother, Mad Molly, played with snaggle-toothed gusto by Judy Davis who steals — or at least crabbifies — every scene she is in. Molly professes not to remember.
Tilly has vague memories of killing the school bully many years ago and being expelled from her home, forced to move to Paris, France and learn haute couture. She’s back to find the truth, and take her revenge, although how and why are lost in the bizarre muddle of The Dressmaker’s episodic narrative. She doesn’t really have much of a plan, but she does have all that satin.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse (who adapted Rosalie Ham’s novel with P.J. Hogan) creates a fantasy world for this fable to take place, a tiny enclosed town set under the crumbling Dunnage house that sits high on a hill above it. Aside from the cross-dressing policeman, nicely underplayed by Hugo Weaving, the other characters are the nasty sorts that you find in Westerns about rail barons about to kick the settlers off their land or cattlemen who twirl their mustaches while deciding what to do about the farmers. There’s even a rival dressmaker who comes to town with her own sewing machine, ready for a familiar showdown except with more bustles than usual.
The striking exception is Teddy McSwiney, a local field hand, who is preposterously handsome and criminally fit and played with movie-star charm by the preposterously handsome, criminally fit Liam Hemsworth. A scene where he takes off his shirt to be measured for a suit —Tilly and Molly practically drooling with appreciation — caused laughter in the theatre at the sheer absurd breadth of his appeal, so to speak. Teddy appears to have arrived in town from another movie, if not another galaxy.
Teddy and Tilly are drawn to one another, and the romance becomes central to The Dressmaker, threatening to derail the revenge plot, such as it is. Between flashbacks of what really happened that day 25 or so years ago, we enjoy the spectacle of Mr. Hunk throwing himself at this exotic creature and trying not to notice that Hemsworth is 26 years old and Winslet is 41. Nothing wrong with that — hey, good for her — except that in the film’s chronology, Tilly would have been banished before Teddy was born, so their shared childhood memories are yet another unlikelihood. Teddy and Tilly’s trip to the movie theatre to watch Sunset Boulevard might be Moorhouse’s acknowledgement of the age disparity.
Still, The Dressmaker is an entertaining diversion if you accept the intimations of family violence that are covered with absurd comedy to make them palatable. But about an hour and a half in, just as you think things are going to wrap up, there’s another plot twist — one that seems unnecessarily cruel to everyone, actually — and the final 30 minutes of the film unravel in a confused scheme of comeuppance. I didn’t follow it precisely, but it appears to have something to do with Gilbert and Sullivan. That seems about right.
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