Despite buckets of humour and a ripper cast, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker stretches itself just enough that the stitches start to show.
After being branded a murderer at the age of ten and sent away to a boarding school in Melbourne, Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (Kate Winslet) has spent the majority of her adult life pursuing her passion for fashion in Europe; from London to Paris and Milan, Myrtle has done everything she can to distance herself, both literally and emotionally, from the backwater hometown of Dungatar in Outback Australia where she grew up.
However, when Tilly returns home to care for her aging mother Molly (Judy Davis), the proverbial skeletons in her closet are sitting, waiting to be paraded around in front of a town that doesn’t forget, and rarely forgives. As her reappearance signals the resurfacing of a scandal, this otherwise sleepy town is suddenly abuzz with whispers about Tilly’s true intentions – but can her Parisian haute culture knowhow help clear her name, and win the townsfolk’s trust?
With The Dressmaker, director Jocelyn Moorhouse, along with co-screenwriter and real-life husband PJ Hogan, have penned a whimsical ensemble piece that, despite containing a raft of riotous characters, struggles to uphold a consistent tone and sustain interest in the B-grade murder mystery plot.
To their credit, Moorhouse and Hogan’s screenplay strives to make the most of a ludicrously talented Aussie cast; the film doesn’t just focus on Tilly, and instead chooses to play around with the wonderfully wacky eccentricities of almost everyone who resides in this otherwise sleepy Outback town.
Hugo Weaving is an absolute riot as Farrat, the cross-dressing police sergeant with a heart of gold and a fondness for feather boas, whilst Sarah Snook is hilarious as Gertrude 'Trudy' Pratt, a bespectacled store clerk yearning to undergo an ugly duckling transformation and win the heart of upper-class dandy William (James Mackay). The only actor upsetting the applecart is an oddly miscast Liam Hemsworth as hometown heartthrob Teddy; a puppy-eyed beefcake who spends 80% of his screen time chopping wood or posing shirtless by his dilapidated trailer, Hemsworth’s posturing performance sits uncomfortably alongside the more seasoned thespians who round out this otherwise impressive roster.
The razor-sharp dialogue that Winslet and Davis share whilst cooped up in their ramshackle house on the hill is The Dressmaker’s sharpest suit, an element made even more impressive by the former’s impeccable Aussie accent. Winslet has a lot of ground to cover here, as Moorhouse spreads her focus pretty wide, covering everything from sweeping fairy-tale romance to silly absurdist comedy and a dark revenge yarn. It’s a testament to her talent as an actress that Winslet’s performance isn’t lost amongst the jarring tonal shifts and striking Outback vistas.
The costume design is undeniably gorgeous; Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson have worked wonders in recreating all-manner of stylish period ball gowns and brassieres, and the cast have a whale of a time swanning across the set dressed to the nines is sumptuous silks and striking stilettos. This sumptuous serving of style is also spread across every element of set decoration (Lisa Thompson), set design (Michael Bell) and hair and makeup (Helen Magelaki).
However, the fanciful frocks do nothing to disguise that The Dressmaker runs out of material around the three-quarter mark; a series of swift rug pulls signal a downward spiral in the third act from which the film never really recovers, and an overlong conclusion stretches out the melodrama just long enough to feel tiresome.
The Verdict: 5.5/10
Almost frivolous to a fault, The Dressmaker is fun aside that does enough with the cast to entertain – even if the plot feels like three separate films that’ve been haphazardly sewn together.
The Dressmaker is in cinemas across Australia now.