Film review: A solid cast led by Kate Winslet balances out flimsy storyline in The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker is good natured, quirky fun of the kind Australian cinema does so well. Although it's a bit long for what is essentially a series of kooky small-town folk gags and shots of Winslet radiantly modelling 50s fashion in a dusty town.

Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth in The Dressmaker. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
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The Dressmaker

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse

Starring: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving

Three stars

Meet Tilly Dunnage, the titular dressmaker played by Kate Winslet. Tilly has spent the past few years touring the fashion capitals of Europe with her trusty Singer sewing machine, but now she’s back in her parochial Australian outback hometown, Dungatar, to settle old scores.

There’s a dark secret in Tilly’s hometown past and she was driven out as a child. She thinks she’s cursed and is determined to lift the curse. The problem is, she can’t remember why she was driven out or why she has been cursed.

The town’s residents are a motley crew of quirky individuals. Her mother (Judy Davis) is nicknamed Mad Molly and lives up to her name admirably, existing as a hermit in the family home on the hill above the town, with nothing but an imaginary possum for company. There’s a mildly psychotic, hunchbacked pharmacist and his long-suffering wife; the pompous and adulterous town councillor and his obsessive-compulsive wife; Tilly’s sadistic former schoolmistress; the geeky shop girl who dreams of finding true love; and Hugo Weaving’s police sergeant. Liam Hemsworth’s hunk, Teddy, offers both a love interest and a rare beacon of normality among the town’s eccentric residents, though his role as a main carer to his learning-disabled brother ensures he doesn’t have it all his own way either.

At first, most of the townsfolk are none too pleased to see Tilly return, but gradually she wins them over by virtue of her dressmaking skills, all the while getting closer to unravelling the mysteries of the past, with, eventually, explosive results.

All in all, it’s good natured, quirky fun of the kind Australian cinema does so well. The two-hour running time is a little long for what is essentially a series of kooky small-town folk gags and lingering shots of Winslet looking radiantly out of place modelling the height of 50s fashion in a dusty town, while the main street transforms into a Paris catwalk as more and more residents avail of Tilly’s talents. The movie probably won’t be remembered as one of Oscar-winner Winslet’s greatest performances, but she pulls off the immaculately styled femme fatale well enough, with a solid supporting cast ensuring good laughter value from the fairly lightweight script.