Upon arriving, Tilly's first order of business is reconnecting with her mother, "Mad" Molly Dunnage (a delightfully ornery Judy Davis), who claims she has no memory of who Tilly is, much less the details Tilly wants to know about her alleged crime of murdering a classmate named Stuart Pettyman. Nonetheless, Molly allows Tilly to take up residence in her house, where she catches the eye of the town's only other sympathetic residents, Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a handsome footballer who drains people's toilets for a living, and Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who harbors a secret passion for dresses and dressmaking that rivals Tilly's. As Molly begrudgingly begins to come out of her self-imposed shell and Teddy expresses some romantic interest in her, Tilly starts weaving her way into Dungatar's social circle by designing dresses that transform the town's ladies from drab to fab, starting with meek shopgirl Gert (Sarah Snook) and working her way up to Marigold Pettyman (Alison Whyte), the mother of the boy she supposedly killed.
Co-adapted (with P.J. Hogan) and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse from a novel by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker is a wildly diverse mix of tones and styles, ones which might sound as if they clash but actually blend together into a uniquely entertaining experience. From Tilly's femme fatale entrance (muttering "I'm back, you bastards" under her breath as she takes a drag off of a cigarette) to the near slapstick sight of Molly whacking Tilly with her cane, The Dressmaker is only consistent in the sense that it is always heightened, with everything from comedy to heartbreaking melodrama played up for maximum energy. It's rare that a film this funny is also this sad, and vice versa, not to mention moving, romantic, charming, and even action-packed. Oddly enough, while that may sound exhausting, the film's one real issue is that at two hours, the overall pacing is actually a bit slow through the middle section as Moorhouse finishes launching the story's various balls into the air. The payoff is a film that feels strikingly unique, taking the audience on a true emotional ride, even though Moorhouse's delightful one-line summary -- "Unforgiven with a sewing machine" -- is also amusingly accurate.
Given the script's tonal complexity, a big chunk of the film's success rests solely on Winslet's shoulders, and she pulls it off with ease, managing to show her range in a role that isn't showy, a rock that helps center the audience no matter what's going on. Where another actor might be overwhelmed by Tilly's emotional rollercoaster, Winslet eagerly tackles the opportunity to play almost everything. She accentuates the movie's luxurious silliness, trades barbed one-liners with Davis as if they were an old comedy duo, is convincingly shattered and falls to pieces, then pulls herself back together with a vengeful fiery energy. At one point in Winslet's career, she seemed not resentful, but mildly disappointed at the way her success with Titanic helped typecast her as a go-to for "corset dramas". The Dressmaker feels like a rebellious upending of that sort of film, which blends some of the visual elements with a more contemporary and wildly energetic role she can sink her teeth into. About the only thing she's not good enough to act her way out of is the apparent age difference between herself and Hemsworth as Tilly's potential love interest, but hey, if Hollywood's fiftysomething leading men can co-star with a woman at least years younger, why not Winslet?
Davis is the gem of the supporting cast. Mad Molly is a delightful creation who lavishes in every bit of friendly attention Teddy gives her instead of Tilly, constantly steals his liquor flask, and slowly comes around to the same conclusion as Tilly has: Dungatar is rotten to the core. Although most of their relationship involves trading verbal blows with one another, Davis manages to sneak in enough notes of true regret and familial compassion that scenes late in the movie that are played for drama are surprisingly moving. Hemsworth, meanwhile, is an adequate romantic lead, arguably cast more for his looks than his depth of skill, but he holds his own among Winslet and Davis, which is arguably feat enough. The town itself is full of memorable characters, including a hunchbacked doctor (Barry Otto) who totters from office to home with the help of a pillow backstop, a schoolteacher (Kerry Fox) who seethes with impotent hatred at the thought of Tilly, and the aforementioned Gert, who transforms from mouse to cat with the help of Tilly's dresses. The true delight, however, is Weaving, reuniting with Moorhouse after starring in her lovely debut Proof (1991, not 2005). The role not only recalls Weaving's performance in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but serves as a reminder of his excellent comic chops.
The Video and Audio
For Christmas, Australian viewers were treated to a feature-length documentary on the making of the movie via a new 2-disc DVD set -- a shame that it couldn't have been ported. No theatrical trailer for The Dressmaker is included either.