The Dressmaker opened overseas last year, and became the second highest-grossing film of 2015 in its home country of Australia. But I seriously doubt it will be met with quite the same enthusiasm here in the States.
Kate Winslet stars as Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage, a haute couture dressmaker who has returned from Paris to her small, dusty, hometown in 1951 Australia. Her entrance, along with her opening line, "I'm back, you bastards!" sets up the story like an old-fashioned revenge Western, only this time, the hero is armed with a Singer and not a Smith and Wesson.
Tilly has ostensibly returned home to care for her feeble and slightly insane mother, Mad Molly (Judy Davis, who gets the majority of the film's limited laughs), but what she really wants is the answer to a question that has haunted her since childhood: Did she in fact murder a classmate when she was ten years old?
Most of the miserable townsfolk believe she did, and don't exactly welcome her home with open arms. But she's come armed with the talent she's honed since her banishment from town, and once the townsfolk see her prancing around in her fabulous frocks and learn about the skills she has to offer, they start to appreciate her.
Until they don't, and go back to hating her again.
The Dressmaker is a movie that doesn't stick to one tone, even during the course of a single scene, and it all adds up to a jarring experience. Granted, Australian comedies are rarely subtle, and the characters that inhabit the dusty town Dungatar are broad to the point of caricature, including the cross-dressing police sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who screams in glee at the sight of some silk organza yardage; the hunchbacked pharmacist (Barry Otto) who prescribes riotous lectures instead of actual medicine ("It's addictive!"); and the town Councillor (Shane Bourne), who nightly drugs his high-strung wife to the point of unconsciousness, and then proceeds to rape her.
It was that scene, which comes fairly early in the story, that had me distrusting the film. While the moment isn't exactly played for laughs, it's also not presented as the horrific act it is, either. And so much of the film that follows has a similar problem of not managing to balance the extreme mood swings it takes.
There's a romance at the center of the story, between Tilly and Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a young man who, for some unfathomable reason, hasn't become a horrible person like everyone else in the miserable town. (Kate Winslet is clearly older than Liam Hemsworth, and while it's refreshing to see that kind of age difference play out in the actress's favor for once, it doesn't make sense within the context of the film since they're supposed to be the same age.)
Teddy wants to help Tilly get to the bottom of her mystery, but is constantly warning her that even with all the fancy sewing she can do, the town is never going to like her. Which had me wondering, wait, is that the point? What exactly is she trying to do? She knows they're horrible people, and it doesn't seem like she cares much what they think of her. Yet, she makes them all these dresses and...it leads to no change in them. If anything, it makes them even worse.
Speaking of those dresses, the first half of the film is filled with some lovely fashions (my favorite was the black evening dress with the white accordion sleeves). That, the burgeoning romance between Teddy and Tilly, and some suspense surrounding just who killed that little boy in the schoolyard all makes for a pretty entertaining little tale. For a little while.
But then the film starts to pile on the tragedies, lining them up right next to some comedic deaths, and because both are played with the same tone, the film earns neither the tears nor the laughs it's shooting for. Is The Dressmaker a comedy? Or a tragedy? It tries to be both, and ends up being neither.