Saturday 3 December 2022

Movie Review: The Dressmaker (2015)

A comedy-drama-romance, The Dressmaker enjoys sly western-noir moments, but chooses to sprawl and never settles on an even tone.

In the 1950s, Paris-trained dressmaker Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns to the tiny Australian outback town of Dungatar seeking revenge. Years earlier, when Tilly was a little girl, she was falsely accused of causing the death of a young boy and driven out of town. She is now treated with suspicion as an outcast, although Tilly's memories of her childhood are blurry and she believes she may be cursed. Her crusty - and fiesty - mother Molly (Judy Davis) is well on the way to losing her mind and is of little help.

After reconnecting with local crossdressing police officer Sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving), Tilly causes a stir with her couture dresses and finds an ally in hunky Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), who cleans the local sewers. She wins over the town's women by designing ravishing gowns for them, but her real objective is to reveal the truth about the men who wronged her, and to seek justice, frontier style.

An Australian production directed and co-written by Jocelyn Moorhouse, The Dressmaker has subversive fun with a familiar revenge theme. Vaguely riffing on High Plains Drifter, the style is an unapologetic mix of noir imagery assembled onto Sergio Leone-inspired framing. But this is a search of justice without guns and threats: Tilly's secret weapon is dressmaking, and she deploys frocks to disrupt and unhinge her enemies. Along the way secrets are revealed, hypocrisies shredded, lies laid bare, with still room for romance, humour, one unexpected shock, and plenty of idiosyncratic behaviour.

Unfortunately, the plot is also cluttered with distractions riding on poorly defined secondary characters. Tilly uses a rivalry between Dungatar and the adjacent town of Winyerp to her advantage, starting with a football match and ending with a particularly confusing amateur theatre wardrobe contest. The antagonists are short-changed into cartoon characters, including the town chemist and his wife, a local councillor, and a visiting eligible bachelor and his mother. The town's women are sketched-in and largely interchangeable.

All the padding extends the running time towards two hours and dulls the impact of Tilly's quest to understand her past. Unperturbed, Kate Winslet rides the unruliness with knowing determination, her central performance a nod to classic avengers three chess moves ahead of their victims. Judy Davis is delightful as the mom not quite sure what is going on but anyway intent on disrupting it. 

This dress is attractive, but also a bit too frilly.

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