Sometimes a film comes along that purports to be one thing, but in practice it is much more effective at something else. Take, for instance, The Dressmaker. If the film’s marketing and plot synopsis are to be believed, The Dressmaker is a revenge film and mystery thriller with a comedic focus, and in a pedantic sense that’s not an inaccurate assessment. What The Dressmaker excels at being, however, is a character-centric farce where the plot is secondary to enjoying the company of an eclectic cast of strange characters and watching them bounce off one another just to see what happens.
Ostensibly, the narrative conceit of The Dressmaker is that Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns home in the 1950s to the Australian village she was banished from as a child in order to investigate a childhood murder that she supposedly committed yet cannot remember. She moves in with her aged, amnesiac mother (Judy Davis) and uses her skills as a seamstress and designer to lure the townsfolk who hate her into giving her business, all while trying to figure out if she actually did kill her supposed victim.
Though the film initially makes much over the central mystery, it falls by the wayside as the townsfolks’ internal drama comes into focus. A shy girl (Sarah Snook) wants to attract the eye of the town’s rich young bachelor, and Tilly’s designs awaken in her an inner beauty that she fragilely clings to. The local constable (Hugo Weaving) confesses a love for women’s clothing and fine fabric, which gradually expresses itself more and more with increasing flamboyancy. A local man (Liam Hemsworth) starts to seduce Tilly through a shared sense of outsider angst, while Tilly’s mother attempts to seduce him instead. The town’s characters are all memorable in their unique outlandishness, and Winslet delivers a fantastic performance as the straight woman to everyone’s comic insanity, which escalates to increasingly bizarre heights as Tilly goads them into further craziness with her dressmaking skill and provocative demeanor.
Speaking of provocation, the costume design is appropriately top-notch for a film called The Dressmaker. The majestic designs of Tilly’s dresses—designed by industry veteran Marion Boyce—purposely stand out against the bleak backdrop of the Australian outback, but the absurdity in their setting does not detract from their elegance and grandeur. It would be shocking if this film weren’t at least considered for some major costuming awards this year.
However, despite a cast that is endlessly game and enjoyable in their exquisite costuming, the film falls apart in its third act, primarily because it feels some level of obligation to its varied cast. The central mystery of the boy’s death is solved toward the beginning of the third act in a relatively anti-climactic fashion, after which the film devolves into a series of epilogues for individual characters that drag on until the film’s true and final climax. What it amounts to is a lot of table-setting and character maneuvering for what is ultimately a very simple conclusion, and it would have worked much better if the film had spaced out its plotting to make it the central narrative focus.
In the end, though, the plotless focus of the second act on silly character moments is what saves this film from its tedious faults. Tilly’s investigation and revenge are mostly forgotten in the highly entertaining middle portion of this film, and it’s only when the film finally insists on pulling you back to reality that it falters. But before that happens, expect to be treated to a rogue’s gallery of charming performances. And while you do, fantasize about how one of those finely tailored garments would look on you.