You Can Dress a Girl Up...

The Dressmaker
(Australia, 118 min.)
Dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse, Writ. PJ Hogan, Jocelyn Moorhouse
Starring: Kate Winslet, a Hemsworth, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook
Kate Winslet stars as Myrtle 'Tilly' Dunnage in The Dressmaker, an Entertainment One release.

You can dress a girl up, but you can’t take her to the Outback. Kate Winslet gives a feisty performance as voluptuous Aussie seamstress Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage in the dark comedy The Dressmaker. Winslet is a hoot as the she-devil from Down Under in this oddball film from Jocelyn Moorhouse. When Winslet arrives dressed in Tilly’s best, smoking a cigarette like a femme fatale and taking in the fictional Podunk town of Dungatar, she’s the catalyst for a zany fish-out-of-water comedy. This film is completely out to lunch and is an absolute riot if one goes along with its eccentric style. It’s the hottest mess of the season.

The casting of the film alone makes The Dressmaker something of a headscratcher. Winslet’s Tilly returns home after a long absence that began when she was sent away after being accused of killing a classmate in the schoolyard at age 11. Winslet, now 40, looks spectacular as the mature fashionista eager to settle old scores in the town that wronged her. Her ailing mother, Molly, finds an equally fierce counterpart in Judy Davis, who is 21 years Winslet’s senior, which fits perfectly well with both roles and with the mother’s poor health. However, the former classmates Tilly encounters display bizarre symptoms of arrested development. As Teddy, Tilly’s eventual love interest, Liam Hemsworth is fourteen years his co-star’s junior. Math-wise, Teddy shouldn’t have even been born if Tilly was sent away at 11 years old. Kudos to The Dressmaker for having a middle-aged woman in a relationship with a younger man, but when Teddy talks about remembering Tilly on the schoolyard, The Dressmaker simply doesn’t make sense. Ditto their former classmate Gertrude, played by 29-year-old Sarah Snook, who looks as if she’s 18. The casting creates some logical gaps from which The Dressmaker never recovers.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag too with Davis being characteristically strong as Molly, while some of the townspeople are enjoyable foils. Hugo Weaving appears in a bizarre performance as a cross-dressing police officer that complements Winslet and the film’s wonky tone even if the character treads political incorrectness. Hemsworth, on the other hand, is forgettable bland as Teddy tries to pull Tilly out of a curse that she convinces herself she carries as punishment for past sins, but a late in the game twist with his character sends the film off the rails in its final act. There are too many loose ends to tie up and The Dressmaker clumsily weaves its threads to a close, although Moorhouse ends the film with a roaringly funny set piece that redeems it.

While The Dressmaker is very inconsistent, it’s always fun as Tilly goes out of her way to stir the pot and arouse trouble. She wants confrontations and she gets them. Give ample credit to Winslet for holding The Dressmaker together, as the film veers between tones and styles. She plays Tilly’s born-to-be-bad attitude with the sauciest relish she’s shown in some time.

Winslet is a marvel at tragedy, making hardened female leads, ill-fated romantics, or devoted maternal figures easy highlights in her career, but comedy hasn’t always been her strongest department. She’s devilishly funny in The Dressmaker as Tilly makes a splash by bringing some colour to the town as she dresses up the local ladies in the latest patterns and hues. Like the town of Dungatar itself, Winslet gets a bit of a makeover here since she often plays dowdier, frumpier figures (or she has lately, anyways) but rarely has a film used her sex appeal to its full advantage. As the curvy devil, she struts around the dusty town in threads inspired by the hottest designers, turning heads from all directions and igniting the gossipy tongues of her neighbours. It looks like she’s having a riot, too, which makes it easier to go along with the film’s eccentric style.

The costumes by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson are lovely assets, too, as Tilly’s ensembles and designs are wild numbers that make The Dressmaker akin to the Aussie The Devil Wears Prada. The Dressmaker never makes the outfits too over the top, though, as Moorhouse accentuates Tilly’s sultry style with clothes that regularly folks like the Dungatarees could easily buy at a high-end boutique. The use of colour and texture, moreover, draws out the town’s repressive conservatism and finds freewheeling release in Tilly’s eye for fashion. Tastes change and trends vary, but The Dressmaker proves that Kate Winslet will never go out of style.

The Dressmaker is now playing in Toronto at the Varsity.