“The Dressmaker” was clearly intended to be a ravishing creation, but it’s patched together from such a ragbag of scraps that it can’t be called a success. Despite highly enjoyable moments and the welcome presence of Kate Winslet, even sympathetic viewers will be put off by the movie’s bewildering variety of genres and tones.
The film sets us up to expect the darkest sort of black comedy — It’s the 1950s, and a gorgeously attired Tilly (Winslet) arrives in a backwater Australian village, with the stony-faced announcement, “I’m back, you bastards.” She’s a supremely talented fashion designer, intent on wielding her sewing machine to right some serious wrongs from the distant past.
The residents of this miserable burg are narrow-minded, dowdy and dumb — caricatured hicks meant to be disparaged, a point the film beats into the ground. These grotesques would seem to be no match for revenge-minded Tilly, with her red lipstick, cigarettes and haute couture, the likes of which the local harridans have only goggled at in magazines.
Tilly moves into a dismal shack inhabited by a seeming madwoman, who turns out to be her mother, played by Judy Davis, in an unbridled performance that steals the film. Both mom and daughter have serious memory issues, but it’s clear that something horrible happened when Tilly was a child, which drove her to flee.
The film, based on Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel, turns on the promising idea that high fashion can be used as weapon, ensnaring the repulsive townswomen and underlining their ugly natures. In a series of highly striking images, these creatures prance around the dusty streets in Tilly’s creations, which are parodies of 1950s’ Paris fashions.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse includes a cinematic quotation from “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Dressmaker” does have its noir side, a brooding sense of the past and a satirical vision of the present. If only the mood was consistent. Instead, the film weaves in threads of melodrama and romance — the later involving a rugby-playing stud (Liam Hemsworth) whose sleek body the film all but drools over when he is fitted for a suit by Tilly.
There’s more: A mystery is waiting to be solved involving a boy’s death, and much ado is made over the cross-dressing (and other risque behavior) of the town’s single police officer. It all adds up to an awfully busy two hours.
Davis shows us a proud and vital woman emerging from the damaged hag we saw initially. In one of the movie’s most entertaining scenes, she attends a showing of “Sunset Boulevard” and treats both the movie and her fellow viewers to hoots and catcalls. Her deepening interactions with Tilly are the closest the movie approaches to substance.
But tonal inconsistencies sink “The Dressmaker,” and the same applies to Winslet’s character. The actress does her best with what she’s given, but the film never seems to get a handle on the character — her hard edge comes and goes in a bewildering way.
“The Dressmaker’s” incessant bludgeoning of the villagers invites us to feel a too-easy sense of superiority. After several false endings, the film has genuinely worn out its welcome.
What a shame, because Tilly’s surreal, extravagant handiwork is really something to see.
Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving.
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse.
Screenwriters: Rosalie Ham, P.J. Hogan, Jocelyn Moorhouse. Based on the novel by Rosalie Ham.
A Broad Green Pictures release. Running time: 119 minutes. Brief vulgar language, a scene of violence. In Miami-Dade: South Beach, Aventura, Sunset Place; in Broward: Gateway.