The tailoring is more consistent than the storytelling in “The Dressmaker,” an appreciably deranged tale of small-town intrigue that finds Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse returning quite literally with a vengeance after a nearly 20-year absence from the director’s chair. Starring Kate Winslet as a spirited 1950s haute-couturist who decides it’s time to return to her miserable hometown and give the place a little color (mostly red), this insistently quirky comedy-thriller-mystery-horror-revenge saga serves up an ugly human menagerie of ghouls and grotesques — every one of them contributing a different patch to a crazy quilt of murder, adultery, repression and madness. A work of shrill, campy excess as well as some pretty choice acting (especially from the always-welcome Judy Davis in a spry supporting role), Moorhouse’s adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel may lead audiences to expect a primmer, more well-behaved movie based on its title alone, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have them in stitches.
“I’m back, you bastards,” snarls Tilly Dunnage (Winslet), formerly known as Myrtle Dunnage, as she steps back into the dust-choked Australian hamlet of Dungatar, from which she was banished at the tender age of 10 for allegedly murdering a schoolboy named Stewart Pettyman. Even her own mother, Molly (Davis), a perpetually foul-tempered banshee known to the locals as Mad Molly, doesn’t believe in Tilly’s innocence as she growlingly welcomes her daughter back into their home, which sits on a hill overlooking a town that hasn’t gotten any kinder or less loathsome in the past 20-plus years. The town chemist (Barry Otto) is still a slut-shaming religious fanatic. The local schoolteacher (Kerry Fox) is still a bitter old hag who clings to her accusation that she saw Tilly smash Stewart’s head in. And the dead boy’s father, Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne), the councilor of Dungatar, retains a cruel, vise-like grip on the town as well as his tormented, long-suffering wife (Alison Whyte).
Not everyone is unhappy to see Tilly/Myrtle back in Dungatar. There is, for one, Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a handsome soccer star who takes an immediate interest in this worldly and sophisticated beauty. There’s also Farrat (Hugo Weaving), the good-hearted, secretly cross-dressing police sergeant who delights in the colors and fabrics Tilly has brought back with her from Paris, where she spent years learning the fine art of dressmaking. Also eager to sample the wares is Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook), a plain-Jane store worker who steps into one of Tilly’s radiant hand-stitched creations and enjoys a magical Cinderella moment at a local dance. Before long, the new dress shop is thriving and Tilly has more orders than she can handle, though it’s clear that she has more than just turning heads and profits on her mind. She wants to learn what really happened the day Stewart died, under traumatic circumstances that she’s blocked from memory, and hopefully clear her much-abused name.
That’s easier said than done, of course, given the moral black hole that Dungatar reveals itself to be, a seething and monstrous human cesspool capable of devouring even the most innocent and pure-hearted souls in its midst. That lesson is brought startlingly home in the film’s most jarring (and genuinely upsetting) death scene — one of many instances in which “The Dressmaker” proves remarkably ruthless about bumping off major characters as the story demands. While Moorhouse’s focus on a sharply drawn, predominantly female cast gives the film a certain kinship with “How to Make an American Quilt” and “A Thousand Acres,” its dark, acrid mood most directly recalls that of her superb 1991 debut, “Proof,” the first and only other Australian-set feature she’s directed — which makes “The Dressmaker” as much of a homecoming for her, in some ways, as it is for Tilly.
Given the sheer number of threads that Moorhouse (who adapted the novel with her writer-director husband, P.J. Hogan) keeps in play, it’s surprising how well “The Dressmaker” coheres, albeit more along narrative lines than tonal ones. From scene to unpredictable scene, the movie can be a bewildering mess, but also a lively and propulsive one — daring you to keep up as it morphs from smirky, backbiting comedy to earnest, look-at-the-stars wonderment to frightening Grand Guignol intensity, while David Hirschfelder’s busy score works overtime to keep up with the picture’s rapidly shifting moods. As the end approaches, the overall tenor of the piece bends increasingly toward the book’s gothic extremity, as Moorhouse pushes the mechanics of her bizarre story furiously toward camp: Long-buried mysteries are solved even as the present-day body count keeps rising, and an amateur town production of “Macbeth” comes out of nowhere — all the better to provide a suitable backdrop for Tilly’s own merciless revenge play.
Providing a crucial, stabilizing anchor here are the performances of Winslet and Davis, whose turn as a booze-swilling, dementia-addled and infernally sharp-tongued old matriarch is enough of a hoot to make one further wonder what she might have done with the role of Violet Weston in “August: Osage County,” onscreen or onstage. At one point, Tilly, Molly and Teddy attend a local showing of “Sunset Blvd.,” and the priceless sight of Molly talking back at the screen, cutting between Davis and Gloria Swanson, feels like a subliminal moment of exchange between one inimitable Hollywood grande dame and another. Winslet, a difficult actress to root against under any circumstances, has us in her palm from the moment she steps into frame, looking like an avenging dark angel bathed in ’50s noir shadows. Her presence lends much-needed ballast, and even a measure of moral weight, to the over-the-top retribution that awaits at film’s end.
While the production designer Roger Ford’s village interiors have a nicely lived-in, packed-to-the-rafters feel, there’s a sly sense of exaggeration and artifice to the exteriors and Australian locations used that heightens the underlying theatricality of the material. Given the title, it’s no surprise that the work of costume designers Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson positively sings onscreen, with Tilly’s dresses striking a bold, vibrant contrast with the drab colors and outdated fashions hitherto favored by the women of Dungatar.