by Philip Price
I watched what could be considered some very strange films at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, but I don't think any of them were as weird or out there as Jocelyn Moorhouse's “The Dressmaker.” This movie, you guys, is completely bonkers. You wouldn't think so given the look photo attached to this review and the fact it stars such credible and well-respected actors as Kate Winslet, Hugo Weaving and Judy Davis, but once this thing gets rolling it is both surprising and distracting as to how ridiculous it gets. As I watched the events of the film unfold I couldn't help but to keep writing down again and again how I couldn't believe they were going where they were going and yet, the film kept going...one step further. Now, to be clear, this isn't strange or ridiculous in the sense of bombastic violence or discussing things typically considered too taboo for everyday discussion, but more in the sense of general absurdities. Having not directed a film in nearly 20 years and operating strictly in Australia this would seem to be a fine opportunity to return for Moorhouse and there is plenty of stuff to have fun with here despite the fact I wasn't able to get on board with all of it. With Winslet leading the charge (though she seems miscast) Moorhouse and her ensemble of misfits that make up this small town in Australia endeavor to deliver a perfectly cheeky little screwball comedy that is able to hold a slight amount of substance rather than being completely flippant.
Based on Rosalie Ham's best-selling novel, “The Dressmaker” tells the story of Mertyl "Tilly" Dunnage (Winslet) who returns to her small home town in Dungatar, Australia to hopefully right the wrongs of her past. You see, Tilly was once accused of being a murderer, but she herself can't remember the incident the townspeople say she is responsible for. Tilly's mother (Davis) has been shunned as much as her daughter and lives like a hermit on the outskirts of town while un-affectionately being referred to as "Mad Molly." The town is governed by misogynistic mayor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) whose wife, Marigold (Alison Whyte), has driven herself to the brink of insanity after the death of their son, Stewart, 25 years ago by keeping herself confined to her house and committing to keeping it literally spotless. There is also the rather flamboyant Sergeant Farrat (Weaving) who is the only source of authority in the town, but would rather be strutting his stuff on a runway somewhere. Given this defining character trait, Farrat is one of the few people in Dungatar who are happy to see the return of Tilly. This is due to the fact that in her absence, Tilly has become an expert dressmaker trained by Madeleine Vionnet in Paris. Upon her return, Tilly begins transforming the locals (including Sarah Snook's Gertrude) with her couture creations and the tide begins to turn and the truth begins to reveal itself as to what actually happened all those years ago.
Living just on the outskirts of town with Tilly and her mother are the McSwiney's who, while not being as well-off as their fellow townspeople, seem to be the only other source of authenticity in Dungatar. This consists mainly of brothers Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and Barney (Gyton Grantley). Teddy is the handsome leader of the town's rugby team and is surprised to find Tilly back in town, but more so he is intrigued by the thought of her return and attracted to the mysterious, but clearly intelligent woman she's become once he gets to know her. Here we find our fist oddity. Both Winslet, Hemsworth and even Snook's characters are all supposed to be around the same age despite Hemsworth clearly being the youngest of the bunch (he's twenty-five) and Winslet being 15 years older than him despite the fact Teddy says he remembers Tilly before she left. It's not so much that we can't come to buy into this fact as the film goes on, but knowing what we do of the actors beforehand it's somewhat jolting to realize they're all supposed to be the same age. This is just the beginning of the oddities though for as we get to know the characters more not only do we find out the secrets of the Mayor and Sheriff, but we find that Teddy's brother Barney is a special needs case (who holds the keys to a third act twist, of course), Molly seems to be suffering from early stages of dementia, the town doctor is a hypocritical cripple and the rest of the townfolk are basically a bunch of shallow, superficial types whose outward appearance means more to them than anything else.
In short, as the film rolls on and becomes all the more melodramatic it becomes all the more obvious there are no limits to how far this thing is willing to go. There are mountains of death, but more we are affected by the mountains of bad luck that Tilly has. This pile of extreme misfortune is distracting in a way that it doesn't seem conceivable so many setbacks could happen to one person in their entire lifetime, much less the first 33 or so years that Tilly is supposed to have been alive. What these countless tragedies also don't assist with is the resolution of the film. While deaths will naturally make it easier for a film to wrap itself up (that said, the film still goes on for too long), we all know the easy way isn't always the right way. There is a pivotal moment late in the film where the roles that Tilly and her mother were playing prior to this incident switch and there is something heartwarming, sensible and ultimately calming about the scenario, but dammit if “The Dressmaker” is going to stay calm and end on a good note. Instead, the film plods along for another twenty minutes or so, becomes somewhat irresponsible in its narrative duties and forces itself to conclude with Tilly literally burning this town that's brought her so much pain to the ground.
In theory, this would be the kind of movie you settle down with on a cozy, Sunday afternoon. Key words: in theory. Instead, while being somewhat nicely paced for the first third, the rest of the film is a hodgepodge of tones and a mash-up of genres that never yield a satisfactory result in any one category or emotion. That is not to say everything has to be neatly classified into one genre or another, but not even Moorhouse seems to know what she is going after here and it is this kind of manic mentality that sends the film off its rails. It wants too many things to be any one thing. It tries to be intentionally campy while throwing in bits of genuine drama after having just made a joke out of domestic violence. Nothing adds up. The performances from both Davis (the broad comic relief) and Winslet (the anchor who is swallowed up by the chaos) try as hard as they can to make this somewhat rational with Davis coming out the better of the two, but while I was never necessarily bored with the film I was never impressed or immersed in it either. More, “The Dressmaker” wants to be a satirical take on the gossip that engulfs the lives of those in a small town, but in reality it becomes little more than an example of what not to do when mixing broad physical comedy with those aforementioned mountains of death and having none of the sense to just paint this thing as one big dark comedy.