Movie Review: “The Dressmaker”

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Bullying, blood-spilling and a rising body count are the hallmarks of the Aussie “revenge comedy” “The Dressmaker.”

It’s a darker-than-dark farce where the talent on hand is impressive, but the laughs are sparse and grimly won. Maybe you have to be Australian to wholly appreciate it, but I found it hard going, with just a few flashes of wit to justify employing an Oscar winning star, Oscar nominated co-star and putting Hugo “The Matrix” Weaving into a dress.

Tilly Dunnage may be beautiful and talented, but the bitterness bubbles through the moment she steps off that bus in Dungatar, the berg in the Aussie boondocks she used to call home.

“I’m back, you bastards!” she hisses.

Kate Winslet brings her va va voom to Tilly, dressing to impress even in this dusty village. It’s 1951, she left under a cloud years before. Now, she’s back to tidy up “Mad Molly,” her mom, get some answers and maybe clear her name.

Tilly was once accused of killing an elementary school classmate, and the town hasn’t forgotten. But what haven’t they forgotten? Does anybody really know what happened, all those years before?

Mom, Mad Molly, doesn’t even remember her own daughter, much less the details of “the murder.” Judy Davis throws the last ounce of vanity out the window for this sickly, unbathed hermit. Before Tilly does anything else, she’s got to clean up Mom — dress her — get her to recognize her.

Tilly is convinced she’s “cursed,” and has been since that long-ago day when fate brought her into conflict with a school bully.

To get some answers, she vamps it up and stirs the pot — distracting the local football team, tempting the neighbor (Liam Hemsworth) who grew up next door to her, irritating every other woman and man in town.

“Trollop” is the nicest insult hurled her way. But considering those judging her, you wonder why Tilly bothered to come back.

There’s the hunchbacked chemist/pharmacist (Barry Otto) who regards the entire village as “sinners,” and resists prescribing any drugs to any0ne — “Addictive. All she needs is God’s forgiveness.”

The president./mayor (Shane Bourne) feeds tonic to his obsessive/compulsive wife, doping her every night before taking sexual advantage of her.

The local constable (Weaving) is a bit too fond of women’s fabrics. Weaving plays this Sgt. as sweet and reluctant to judge, a John Waters in drag.

Tilly finds herself interjecting in local romances, interfering in gossip and hunting for answers as she does — offering dazzling dresses of her own making as payment.

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I have no idea how this novel read, but the film plays as nearly tone-deaf drudgery. The husband-wife team of Jocelyn Moorhouse (“How to Make an American Quilt”) and P.J. Hogan (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) spare no unpleasantness, and fail to find laughs in much of it.

Winslet can still deliver the glamour, and gives fair value in scenes both bitter and biting. Davis is flinty and the character could have been a hoot, but the writing lets her down.  Weaving lands most of the laughs, swanning about, not really helping Tilly solve her personal riddle until a little haute couture is offered in trade.

Hemsworth is just non-judgmental eye-candy.

It’s no novel observation that venality endures through the generations in small towns, that people escape such villages to escape that the stigma their hometown hangs on them.

“The Dressmaker” doesn’t so much change the pattern of this “Peyton Place” style story as render it ugly and humorless.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for brief language and a scene of violence

Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving

Credits: Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, script by P.J. Hogan and Jocelyn Moorhouse, based on the Rosalie Ham novel. A Broadgreen release.

Running time:1:58

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