A woman wears sunglasses, a tight red dress, matching long gloves, and red lipstick. She stands and smokes a cigarette, ostensibly watching a rugby game, but really the players are watching her, fumbling their footwork, and it’s exactly the effect she desires. This early scene, with its shifting gazes and splash of lurid color, suggests a film that might be fun and provocative. Unfortunately, The Dressmaker does not deliver on this early promise. Set in 1950s Australia and based on a novel by Rosalie Ham, director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film concerns a dressmaker, Tilly (Kate Winslet), who returns to her rural hometown to see her ailing mother (Judy Davis) and work through increasingly convoluted questions of identity. Tilly was cast out of the town at a young age, accused of murdering a local boy. It’s revealed in flashbacks that she is not in fact a murderer, but the film revels in misfortune, mistaking a cruel attitude toward its poor, struggling characters for black humor.
Tilly stands in obvious contrast to those around her, and her dresses, with their low necklines and hourglass shapes, offer a welcome dose of contemporary glamour. Her mother, on the other hand, has blacked-out teeth and appears constantly disheveled. All of the townspeople are presented as uneducated and unattractive, with the exception of Ted (Liam Hemsworth), a farmer who becomes Tilly’s lover and meets a tragic fate that can only be described as a cruel “gotcha!” moment. Early on, Tilly makes a dress for a shabbily outfitted and bespectacled girl, and the shining frock transforms her into a siren.
Her couture has the power to imbue a woman with confidence, which only stokes the resentment of the townswomen: She may have committed a crime, and now she’s coming back home and getting everybody’s attention — who does she think she is? Moorhouse seems to think most of her provincial characters are fools, but Tilly is a more complicated subject. When she talks to her mother about her success in fashion, designing for Vionnet and Balenciaga, it seems there’s a whole other (possibly better) story to be told. The film only shows Tilly designing for people she dislikes, the people who cast her out in the first place. What was it like when she designed in a glamorous setting and worked her way up to the top?
While the setting of The Dressmaker is decidedly unglamorous, Moorhouse at least presents it intriguingly. With wide-open spaces, dust, and shabby parlors, the film recalls a Western. It’s a clever choice: When Tilly first gets off the train, she wields her imposing sewing machine case like a weapon, and many of her tense interactions with the townspeople are standoffs without horses or pistols. The film is wildly, almost absurdly nihilistic: Tilly hates most everyone around her, and the characters are defined by insultingly one-note characteristics — there’s the crossdressing cop, the hunchback, the farmer’s slow brother. Perhaps it’s meant to be somehow mythic, but mostly The Dressmaker is just cruel. Tilly’s dresses provide a shimmer of loveliness and seduction. Shame about the film they’re in.