As this, “The Dressmaker” really excels, cooking up its vengeance with all sorts of rapid fire editing that elicits a crazy dream sensation and allows for Kate Winslet to channel the entirety of “The Wild Bunch” and then filter them through the icy cool of Miranda Priestly. Her Tilly employs the wicked haute couture skills picked up in Paris to grand put-everyone-in-their-place effect, like in a subsequent scene where Tully invades a local rugby game by shimmying around and coolly reclining in an impeccably cut gown. She stops the game and the town looking on it dead in its tracks, luxuriating in the power she holds, a power that she bestows on other members of a town where it too often seems that backward-thinking, insulated powers-that-be wield control. Indeed, though there is a local police sergeant (Hugo Weaving), a closeted cross-dresser who Tully will help gleefully come out of it, the town itself seems more indebted to a hunchback doctor who has long wielded his medicines to devious effect and the town councillor (Shane Bourne) who rules like Michael Gambon in “Open Range”.
Problem is, that’s not quite enough for “The Dressmaker”, as director Jocelyn Moorhouse, working from a book by Rosalie Ham, inundates her film with tonal shifts – nay, about-faces that come at us in unremitting waves, over and over and over. This is not a film for the tonally faint of heart, swerving from scene to scene, moment to moment, second to second, hanging hairpin turns from the caustically comic to the sweetly serious to the positively insidious, like a rape that is so sudden and cut away from so quick you’re not entirely sure if Moorhouse was just afraid of actually showing it or didn’t necessarily have the desire to wrestle with what something so monstrous means.
At other points, however, Moorhouse does go all in on solemnity, such as the flashbacks to Tilly’s quarter-century-ago past where we learn What Really Happened, and which are rendered with a gloomily washed out aesthetic as opposed to the bold, bright colors of the present, re-imagining Tilly’s upbringing as something more like a New England-y “Crucible” than the Outback, while a romance Tilly has with local Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) is earnestly straight-faced and terribly tedious in comparison to her reprisals, tagged with Teddy’s fate that feels wholly unearned, just dropped in, an oddly not-as-meaningful-as-it-should-be drop in the bucket.
I’d like nothing more, being the Winslet devotee that I am, to report that Ms. Winslet skillfully holds this wackadoo what-have-ya together with her ferocious grace. And while she does, she also doesn’t, less convincing in the moments of Teddy’s courtship. That’s because she never really dials back her standoffish nature in these scenes. Moorhouse has compared her film to “Unforgiven”, and that isn’t wrong, and watching Tilly interact with Teddy I kept thinking of William Munny trying so hard to explain how he gave up wickedness. It didn’t fly with him and Tilly falling in love with Teddy does not fly either.
That’s a problem that doubles as a blessing, however, because Winslet’s refusal to play to these lighter moments keeps herself and her storyline cloaked in enough darkness to ensure that “The Dressmaker” never loses it edge, an edge that is the film’s best quality. Because if going home movies, particularly when home turns out to be of a Nowhere variety in relation to the big city where the main character honed his/her chops, a conservatism tends to slowly compromise his/her values. That doesn’t happen here, as Tilly pointedly refuses to compromise her attitude to help those hiding their true selves in town to open up, or find to something in themselves that they don’t know, to carry themselves with audacity and attitude. Tilly keeps carrying herself with attitude too, despite that whole romantic subplot slip-up. And if she teaches a few townfolk to be true to themselves, she stays true to herself too, just in a more vivaciously vicious way, which is what the conclusion is, really dark and really wonderful and sans copout. There are so many movies that play it safe; “The Dressmaker” plays with matches.