Reviewed by: Jack Dawson
I still struggle to reach any kind of decision on whether The Dressmaker is a good film. It’s certainly a beautiful one, with a visual flair and a taste for the stylized that suits the rural Australian setting. And it’s some great Actors and Actresses turning in some decent performances (Hugo Weaving all but steals the entire movie in almost every scene he’s in). But I look back on the film with less affection and goodwill with every passing hour, and the problems that it possesses are major deal breakers.
Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage is a world class designer who has worked for the very best in Paris, Spain and London, but she has a secret. She grew up in a small Country town in Australia, where she was accused of murder, a crime which she may or may not have actually committed. As time passes, she begins making dresses for the local women, exposing them to modern fashions in return for a modest sum of money, while reconnecting with her Mother and old Enemies.
The story I’ve just described above sounds genteel and reserved, but that’s not what the audience is promised at the beginning of the film. Electric Guitars twang menacingly, and sepia toned flashbacks of sociopathic children and grim schoolhouses play as an elegant woman steps out of the taxi and declares: ‘I’m Back you Bastards’.
This actually caught my attention, and I was looking forward to a fun romp of bloody and violent revenge, interspersed with broad characters and an explosive finale.
And that’s how things proceed up until the 20 minute mark, where the film decides it would like to be taken seriously now, as it’s a serious drama about complex people with sympathetic motivations.
It’s a mixed success, to put it charitably. While Kate Winslet does her best to stay afloat, Hugo Weaving and Judy Davis emerge triumphant as the best Performers in the piece, who manage to defy any attempt at moody drama and find an equilibrium between the conflicting styles respectively. The rest of the performances are delivered with the arch comedy that we were led to expect in the opening, which undermines any attempt at introspective drama later on.
That’s to say nothing of the story, which tries to have its cake and eat it too. The pacing feels entirely wrong for one thing, the mystery that haunts Tilly Dunnage is solved two thirds of the way in, and then the film decides to meander onwards with a romance subplot that does very little to flesh out or enhance Tilly’s character (in fact it rather undermines the femme fatale aspect that makes her engaging). And the townspeople’s motivations and actions seem to change on a dime to best fit the narrative, one moment they’re all victims of a poisonous culture and the next they’re cackling villains who deserve to be brained with a typewriter or drowned in a lake (accidentally of course, any willing murder would surely prevent us from liking the main character as much). The entire story changes on a dime to ensure that Tilly is the most sympathetic and likeable character on screen at any given time, which is never a good idea for any work of media.
It breaks whatever investment I had in the story and its characters, and it makes whatever achievements Tilly attains feel empty and hollow. This might have been mitigated if the film could pick a tone and stick with it, but here we are.
I’m tempted to say that The Dressmaker isn’t a bad film despite all that, but that would be lying. This film has a lot going for it, and on a technical level it’s absolutely gorgeous. But the rest of the film is such a mess that I honestly would have rather watched The Last Witch Hunter again, which does know how to pick a tone and stick with it.
Maybe fans of the book it was based on will enjoy it, or people looking for shallow digs at a decidedly bitter representation of Rural Australia, but otherwise I’d recommend you stay away from this one.