Bloody Revenge Never Looked This Good: 'The Dressmaker' Sways and Slays

Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker (2016)

Kate Winslet paints the town red in this scrambled but wildly entertaining outback folktale.

The Dressmaker

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving
Rated: R
Studio: Broad Green Entertainment
Year: 2015
UK Release Date: 2016-09-23
US Release Date: 2016-09-23

“The best revenge is massive success.”

Those famous, biting words, from the golden lips of Frank Sinatra, one of the foremost fashion icons of the mid-20th century, sum up quite nicely the crux of The Dressmaker, a bloody tale small-town murder, madness, and mayhem revolving around a ‘50s seamstress extraordinaire who returns to her dusty outback hometown to exact haute-couture vengeance on the poor, style-deficient townsfolk who shunned and banished her as a child. It’s more of a genre-hoarder than a genre-bender, ping-ponging between comedy, horror, suspense, romance, camp, drama, and mystery (sometimes all within the span of five minutes), and it’s wildly entertaining more often than not. More than a few moments feel forced and/or jarringly out of place, but there’s a pleasant measure of strangeness to the story that helps The Dressmaker stand out from the filmic crowd.

Helming this fashion-forward oddity is Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse, who returns to directing following a nearly 20-year hiatus. She approaches the story -- based on the book by Rosalie Ham -- with an outlandish energy, sandwiching the silliest of moments between flashes of blood-curdling violence and unexpectedly moving scenes of teary-eyed melodrama. It’s a lot to take in and is often tonally discombobulating, but the spine of the tale is worth sifting through the nonsense for.

You can see the fire in Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage’s (Kate Winslet) eyes from the moment she sets foot in her teeny-tiny hometown of Dungatar late one night, armed with a Singer sewing machine and a stunning, Dior-inspired dress of her own making. “I’m back, you bastards,” she growls as she puffs on a moonlit cigarette and charges toward her childhood home atop a lone hill overlooking the rest of the town.

There, she finds her mother (a delightfully ornery Judy Davis), cruelly dubbed Mad Molly by her fellow Dungatar denizens. Molly’s memory is even worse than Tilly’s, and she wails day and night to be left alone as her daughter fights to feed and bathe her. Tilly hasn’t come home to simply play caretaker, however; she’ll leave no stone unturned until she uncovers why she has no recollection of the incident that got her sent away all those years ago, in which she purportedly murdered a schoolboy in broad daylight.

Dungatar, an ugly nugget of civilization plopped in the middle of a barren, dusty sprawl, looks like something out of a wild-west folktale, its buildings few, its two dozen-or-so inhabitants as eccentric and despicable as the worst of the Brothers Grimm lot. The haggish town schoolteacher (Kerry Fox), the one who claims to have borne witness to Tilly’s gruesome crime, is as bitter as ever. Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne), the dead boy’s father and town patriarch of sorts, has for years been taking advantage of his hapless wife (Alison Whyte) and the rest of the town in unspeakably heinous ways. Nearly as deplorable is the hunchbacked town doctor (Barry Otto), a sexist prick who decides to withhold medicine whenever he thinks it’s probable God will pick up the slack.

Almost all of Dungatar is terrified upon Tilly’s return, though their fears are slightly assuaged when she decides to start outfitting the womenfolk in gorgeous, flowing, tailored dresses (which look jaw-droppingly gorgeous on screen and pop in a most fascinating way when framed by the bone-dry landscape). It’s never made completely clear how taking the town’s level of fashion to new heights helps our heroine on her revenge mission, which is a big distraction despite all of the visual splendor this particular story thread brings to the table.

Speaking of distracting eye candy, Liam Hemsworth plays one of two townsfolk who are actually happy about Tilly’s return (the other is a cross-dressing, fabric-obsessed policeman played by Hugo Weaving, who brings wonderful cheekiness and whimsy to the tale). The young, surging Australian native is a natural Hollywood hunk (a scene that sees Winslet take his measurements while he’s stripped to the skivvies is enough to make anyone blush), but there isn’t much electricity between he and his equally stunning leading lady.

The romance leaves a lot to be desired, but so do pretty much all of the myriad other threads in the dizzying, overcomplicated plot. Moorhouse encumbers herself by trying to keep too many plates spinning at once. There’s the murder mystery, the mother-daughter drama, the storybook romance, tension between Tilly and a rival designer (Sacha Horler), the domestic horror revolving around the Pettymans. It’s too much to handle, and while the plot isn’t terminally confounding, it’s a veritable jungle of contradictory moods, themes, and character motivations.

The Dressmaker is scatterbrained and sometimes laughably contrived, but every scene works on its own, out of context, which is weird and strangely entertaining. You never know what brand of absurdity Moorhouse is going to hit you with next, but you know it’ll look great and be acted well. The grand idea that drives the story -- about the courage it takes to accept and forgive oneself in the face of mass ridicule and castigation -- is one that sticks and proves surprisingly poignant at the end of the day, despite the whirlwind of plot distractions that threaten to obscure it throughout. Taken bite by bite and with a measure of patience, Moorhouse’s directorial return is as delightfully chaotic as Tilly’s homecoming, a colorful, one-of-a-kind affair that’s not afraid to shake things up a bit.

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