Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Starring: Kate Winslet
If you think that they don't make 'em like they used to anymore, then you've never seen Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker, vamping like Rita Hayworth, snarling like Bette Davis (perhaps the only actress who could have made more of her character's first line, "I'm back, you bastards."), and mixing strength and vulnerability like Vivien Leigh. But while it sometimes feels like a cross between Bad Day at Black Rock and Johnny Guitar, it wouldn't really be accurate to call the film, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham, a throwback to a different era. It is very much its own creature, one which defies easy classification, and one which is perhaps either the kind of movie that you embrace completely, or whose charms just completely escape you. It's an oddball, to be sure, but it's glorious in its weirdness.
It's 1951 and 25 years since Myrtle Dunnage was exiled from the tiny outback town of Dungatar on suspicion of having murdered her classmate Stewart Pettyman. Now going by the name Tilly (Kate Winslet) and having become an accomplished designer who has studied all over Europe, she returns to Dungatar intent on getting clarity about what happened all those years ago, having no actual recollection of the event herself. All the old players are still there: Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), the officer who arrested her; Beulah Harridene (Kerry Fox), the teacher whose cruelty helped define her childhood; Mr. Almanac (Barry Otto), the chemist who ensured that she never forgot that she was born out of wedlock; the town's powerful councilman Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) and his wife, Marigold (Alison Whyte), the parents of the dead boy; former classmates Gertrude (Sarah Snook), the daughter of the owners of the general store, and Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), a member of the only family as outcast by the community as her own; and her mother, "Mad" Molly (Judy Davis), who claims not to know her and to know nothing about the alleged murder.
With its arid, sparsely populated, frontier-like setting, small and close-knit community, and protagonist rolling into town in the middle of the night on a mission, The Dressmaker sets itself up as a revenge western in haute couture, but shifts gears almost immediately. Despite the lust for vengeance suggested by her first line, Tilly isn't really out for revenge; she just wants answers, to know why she was torn from the life she had been living, and in the process of searching for the truth she begins putting the pieces of a life back together in Dungatar. She cares for Molly, who has been consumed by mental illness and alcoholism in the years since she's been gone, and gets their home back in livable condition; she makes inroads and becomes part of the community, even though she knows that those who accept her only do so because they want something from her (dresses); and she reluctantly (because she believes that she's cursed) begins a romance with Teddy, who is determined to love her more than everyone else hates her.
For much of its running time The Dressmaker plays like a romantic comedy with a mystery at its center and then in its third act abruptly changes as Tilly, suddenly and brutally stripped of her allies one by one, remembers what she should be in Dungatar for: payback. While these tonal shifts may seem sudden, it's not because the film is confused about what it wants to be. The long peaceful stretch of the film, where it begins to look as if Tilly is going to succeed in winning over her neighbors despite the fact that they think that she's a murderer, and we're treated to scenes of the women in town preening and prancing around the dusty street performing mundane, every day tasks while wearing fancy evening wear, is director Jocelyn Moorehouse very deliberately lulling the audience in order to make the impact of the tragedies to come feel all the more intense. It's a strategy that works beautifully, as that real first blow to Tilly's newfound sense that things are going to work out for her truly does work to jar the audience in a way that sets up the increasing darkness of the film's final act.
And what a final act it is, with every villain great and small getting his or her just deserts, and Tilly coming to the realization that it isn't coming back to Dungatar that will set her free, but leaving it definitively behind. It's an ending with a level of darkness that fulfills the promise of those ominous opening moments, bookending the comedy in between (though there's darkness in that comedy, too, including the set up for a rape scene that's played for laughs, one of the film's few true missteps and an unnecessary one at that, given that the villain has no shortage of other scenes that work to establish how vile he is) and making The Dressmaker the volatile but ultimately engrossing piece of work that it is. When it's funny, it's really quite funny, and when it wants to break your heart, it makes sure to give the knife just that little extra twist.
Moorehouse navigates the narrative through its changing tones expertly, but of course it helps to have an actress like Winslet holding down the center. Winslet is easy to root for in general and the role of Tilly gives her a lot to sink her teeth into as she plays out Tilly's need to uncover the truth about the past, her battle to carve out a place for herself in Dungatar, and as she gracefully demonstrates that the cool elegance that Tilly puts forward masks a deep warmth and vulnerability, a person who at her core simply wants to love and be loved. That warmth is magnified by the characters, and their respective performers, that she spends the majority of her screen time with, from Sergeant Farrat, a women's clothing enthusiast who, as played by Weaving (who looks like he's having more fun than he's had in an age), gives the impression of being someone who was once ashamed of his predilection but had managed to shake it off and was merely waiting for someone to come along and give him the opportunity to properly indulge himself in it; to Teddy who, once you get past the age difference between Hemsworth and Winslet which isn't supposed to exist between their characters, is a solid romantic foil, with Hemsworth holding his own opposite Winslet (a feat that I never could have imagined); and then Davis as Molly, giving a performance that is sublime in its prickliness and lack of vanity. I would recommend The Dressmaker on the strength of the scenes between Winslet and Davis alone, but the whole wild ride of The Dressmaker is worth the time.