Imagine, if you will, a Sergio Leone Western co-directed by Baz Luhrmann, with an assist from Federico Fellini. Then toss in a sudsy Harlequin romance. That might begin to prepare you for the strange experience that is “The Dressmaker.”
Did we mention it stars the estimable Kate Winslet and might deserve an Oscar for costume design?
Winslet is captivating as Tilly, a glamorous dressmaker who returns to her desolate Australian hometown to discover the truth about a childhood trauma. It’s a cartoonish and disjointed tale, though not without some scenes of wicked fun, as directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse (“How to Make an American Quilt”).
Mostly, however, its jarring clash of tones, emotional inconsistencies and plot excesses keep breaking the spell of this absurdist romantic comedy/revenge thriller/quasi-western/murder mystery/mother-daughter drama hybrid. What emerges is a lesson in loopiness. Imagine a cast of character types who all fall under the category of eccentric-with-a-capital-E, then plop them into a narratively convoluted patchwork quilt of conflicting genres and tones.
The year is 1951. Winslet’s Tilly has a brilliant career in Paris couture. She returns to Dungatar, a hellhole in the outback, with the most deranged population outside the Cuckoo’s Nest. Tilly’s arrival in this backwater town causes a stir. No one knew she was coming — not that they would have rolled out a welcome mat; most everyone believes her to be a murderer.
The first words out of Tilly’s scarlet-stained lips are a snarl: “I’m back, you bastards.” It’s a promising introduction. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to that coolly comic opening line.
Leading the crazy caucus is her crotchety, semi-invalid mother, Molly (Judy Davis). Inexplicably, the curmudgeonly Molly doesn’t want to acknowledge she had a child. Then there’s the law, in the form of Sgt. Farrat, played with maximum campiness by Hugo Weaving, a cross-dressing constable who may be more of a fashionista than Tilly.
Characters mainly fall into two camps: mean-spirited bullies and ineffectual victims. Tilly is the only character that dabbles in both arenas. The scarlet woman with a heart of gold, she hides her mushy core underneath her stylish, perfectly appointed armor. The cast includes a religious-fanatic town doctor and his cowed wife, the philandering mayor and his depressed wife. (Wives are not a happy lot in this Aussie hinterland.)
The character we root most heartily for is the kindly bear of a hunky footie hero, appropriately called Teddy, and even more appropriately played by Liam Hemsworth. He’s eternally kind to his developmentally disabled brother (Gyton Grantley) and endlessly helpful to the difficult Molly. And he clearly is besotted with Tilly. Cue the romance.
Given how many love stories feature older men and younger women, it’s refreshing to see the 40-year-old Winslet set off sparks with the 26-year-old Hemsworth. But “The Dressmaker” presents a giant trunk full of ideas in addition to courtship, and some of them are musty.
One of the better sub-plots is Tilly’s stunning ability to transform ugly ducklings into the most graceful swans. Perhaps most noteworthy is the reinvention of mousy store clerk Gertrude (Sarah Snook, “Steve Jobs“), whose startling makeover lures Dungatar’s most eligible bachelor, rich and worldly by the town’s simple standards. It also suddenly gives her a personality. Between Gertrude’s character (a mere dishrag of a girl until she goes glam) and the nasty schoolteacher (Kerry Fox, “Bright Star”) who might be the story’s most malevolent villain, this is no feminist fable, despite Tilly’s confident swagger.
The offbeat tale, which Moorhouse and P.J. Hogan (“Muriel’s Wedding”) adapted from Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel, works in fits and starts. There are giggles to be had — especially given the talents of cast members like Winslet, Davis, Hemsworth and Weaving — but the laughs are not quite plentiful enough to make up for its awkward contrivances.
It’s good to see Moorhouse back, after too long an absence from film directing. As with “Quilt” and 1997’s “A Thousand Acres,” her ability to draw strong performances despite uneven material remains noteworthy.
In one visually appealing scene, Tilly stands on the football field, decked out in bright crimson, with long gloves accenting her strapless fire-engine-red frock and vermillion high heels. (Margot Wilson designed Winslet’s costumes.) A rosy mirage on the dusty pitch, her mere presence distracts the opposing team. Double, triple and quadruple takes ensue, and the local boys win the match. It’s not that the idea is terribly inventive, but Winslet — sporting cigarette holder, movie star sunglasses and endless bravura — sells it so well. Her wordless, sultry stance is the film’s most lasting impression. Despite the convolutions, wrong turns and uneven pacing, Winslet digs in with admirable gusto.
The fashions are a highlight, and the story of a seething snake pit of a town is watchable and intermittently amusing, until things take a jarring turn about halfway in. From there, “The Dressmaker” unravels: its pacing suffers, the plot teeters and characters are largely one-note. And that note is shrill.