The Dressmaker Has Too Many Loose Seams


Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Universal Pictures, 118 minutes, R (language)

The Dressmaker, an Australian comedy, concludes with a delicious revenge scenario. Would that everything that came before it been as good. Alas, Jocelyn Moorhouse serves us a film that's quirky, but not quirky enough; weird, but not weird enough; goofy, but not goofy enough; and surreal, but not surreal enough. Detect a pattern?

The Aussies have a talent for offbeat comedy and have produced such small gems as The Castle, Strictly Ballroom, Malcolm, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This one seeks, but doesn't quite find, that same vibe.* It takes us to the Outback settlement of Dungatar, which would be nowhere at all except inexplicably it's near another town, Winyerp, and the two are rivals. It opens in 1951 when Myrtle ("Tilly") Dunnage (Kate Winslet), arrives at the local train station dressed to the nines, her red lipstick a rare flash of color amidst the parched gray and yellow landscape. Her mother, known as Mad Molly (Judy Davis), lives in Dungatar, but Tilly's not there to see mum and mum doesn't want to see her. Tilly wants to know what happened 25 years earlier. All she can remember is that she was accused of being responsible for young Stewart Pettyman's death in 1928, when they were both eight and that she was exiled from the town. Was she really the young murderess she was accused of being? Does this explain why she feels cursed? 

In her exile to the city (Melbourne?), Tilly picked up some serious seamstress skills. She wears clothes that disgust the local women—until they see how she turns the heads of every man who looks at her. Locals still think she's a cold-blooded killer, but when her red dress turns a soccer match against Winyerp to Dungatar's favor and her dressmaking skills help frumpy Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) ensnare a beau, they are willing to hold their noses and beg her to make frocks for them. Soon we are treated to the absurdity of windblown Outback matrons decked out in high couture. That's a pretty funny idea, but the subtexts are labored. Stewart's father, town councilor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) hates Tilly, blames her for his son's death, poisons townsfolk against her, and even recruits a rival dressmaker to compete with her. Her only friends in town are hunky Teddy McSwiney (Liam Helmsworth), his half-witted brother, Barney (Gyton Grantley), and local police sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who loves the gowns Tilly sews and can't wait to try them on!

As you can see, The Dressmaker has all the makings of a Joel and Ethan Coen film—except that it never lives up to that potential. The search for what really happened in 1928 rests on a pretty lame repressed memory device and all the primping and preening starts to feel like a really bad mall fashion show. To underscore an earlier critique, a key pivot point comes new tragedies unfold, except they're not sad enough to be poignant, nor camp enough to be funny. Then we get the reveal and payback, the latter of which is vicious and satisfying, though its tone is out of keeping with that of the rest of the film.

Winslet is fine in the film, but it's really just a walk through for her, Davis, Hemsworth, and Weaving. There are a few laughs and that final scene, which could have only been improved had someone more acid, like Tilda Swinton been in the role of Tilly. Overall, there's nothing inherently awful about The Dressmaker and it would certainly fit the bill as a download for a night in which you don't want to do much except crump in your favorite chair and veg out for a few hours. Just keep your expectations low.

Rob Weir

* Oddly, The Dressmaker was Australia's top box office grosser for 2015. That probably explains why Universal picked it up for a 2016 release in the US.

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