The Dressmaker
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Stars: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving
Duration: 118 mins
Class: 15
KRS Releasing Ltd

The Dressmaker is a peculiar little offering from Australia that matches elements of drama with farce. And, although the many comical moments that pepper proceedings do not always sit comfortably with the tragic ones, it boasts some solid performances from the main cast led by Kate Winslet, bringing more than a fair bit of enjoyment to this tale of revenge and redemption.

Things start a little enigmatically, as a very chicly-dressed woman shows up at a station that is clearly far, far off the beaten Australian track. Drawing on her cigarette, she takes in her surroundings, muttering, “I’m back, you bastards”.

For this is Tilly Dunnage (Winslet), a 30-something woman returning to Dungatar, the place of her birth, after spending more than 20 years away. Tilly was sent away from the town as a young girl after a very tragic incident for which she was blamed. Now, she has returned from Paris where, for years she worked as a dress-maker for some of the city’s finest fashion houses.

Back in this Australia town in the middle of nowhere she has come home, not only to care for her elderly, ailing mother (Judy Davis) but also to find out the truth about what really happened all those years ago – while plotting revenge against those who wronged her, armed with her trusty sewing machine.

The lack of any complexities works against the film, while the plot itself is a little all over the place

Based on the 2000 novel of the same name written by Rosalie Ham, the film adaptation by director Jocelyn Moorhouse (who wrote the screenplay with P.J. Morgan) succeeds in capturing the mores of small-town living in the 1950s. Here, scandal and gossip are the lifeblood of the townsfolk who know each other’s business all too well, and who will gang up and willingly victimise any outsider, sometimes with surprising viciousness.

It sets the stage for a Western-style showdown, with its tiny town consisting pretty much of one dusty, main street, flanked by wooden houses and stores on either side.

Many of the characters, however, are too easily portrayed as caricatures – most especially the bad guys. There are the gossipy womenfolk, the despicable mayor – whose treatment of his wife is shockingly abusive – and the shrill and cruel schoolteacher. These are all protagonists in the drama that caused Tilly’s removal from the town.

The good guys, however, have more depth and nuance, and are more obviously sympathetic, resulting in a divide between good and evil that is too black and white. This may well have been intentional.

However, the lack of any complexities works against the film, while the plot itself is a little all over the place. Thus, how Tilly’s offer to sew glamourous clothes for the womenfolk fits in with her grand vengeance plan is never quite made clear and never quite comes together; the sudden arrival of a rival seamstress only serves to confuse the issue a little further. And the explosive, overly dramatic tone on which the film ends is a little over-wrought.

That said, the top-billed cast is uniformly excellent, Winslet and Davis in particular. The journey from initial resentment between the two on Tilly’s arrival, to rediscovering the mother–daughter bond is very much the beating heart of the story.

Winslet is luminous in an attractive performance and Davis excels as the eccentric, cantankerous old woman who is not as batty as she makes herself out to be.

Having Liam Hemsworth in the mix as Tilly’s childhood friend and potential love interest helps somewhat and the tentative romance that blossoms between them is appealing and believable. Hugo Weaving has almost too much fun as the local policeman, Sergeant Farrat, who delights in Tilly’s return as much as he does in her sumptuous, colourful fabrics.