Imagine a Sergio Leone remake of Chocolat and you will get some idea of the tone set by this sumptuous, lavishly embroidered tale of Outback revenge – with Kate Winslet’s subversive outsider packing a sewing machine rather than a pistol and couture taking the place of confectionary as the agent of seductive change.
The Dressmaker opens with Winslet’s misfit heroine, Tilly Dunnage, stepping off the train at the dusty, one-horse town of Dungatar in early 1950s New South Wales, her arrival accompanied by the lush strings and jangling guitar that usually greet the heroes of Spaghetti Westerns. Like them, she is on a mission of revenge.
A couture dressmaker, not a gunslinger, she has returned to her tiny hometown after 20 years of exile in Melbourne, London, Milan and Paris, determined to solve the mystery of her banishment as a child, which followed the puzzling death of one of her schoolfellows.
The townsfolk – some of whom are introduced with those extreme close-ups Leone favoured – are a poisonous collection of gossips, neurotics and grotesques, but for all their animosity towards Tilly, they find it hard to resist the possibilities for self-transformation offered by the glorious gowns she is able to whip up for them.
Tilly quickly turns a series of Outback ducklings into glamorous swans, but her true purpose is to ensure that the toxic secrets the town is suppressing will no longer be kept under wraps.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse, adapting Rosalie Ham’s novel with her husband and co-screenwriter PJ Hogan, doesn’t pull things off with quite the same panache as Winslet’s Tilly – embracing comedy, melodrama, romance and tragedy, the plot does feel more than a trifle overstuffed – but her film’s excesses are part of its appeal.
Judy Davis is fabulous as Tilly’s dotty recluse of a mother, finding pathos as well as comedy in her character’s crankiness. And Hugo Weaving is great fun as Dungatar’s secretly cross-dressing police sergeant, while Liam Hemsworth strikes a note of down-to-earth sanity as Tilly’s hunky local swain.
Best of all is Winslet, stopping the traffic in an array of drop-dead gorgeous dresses and channelling the spirit of the era’s screen sirens with voluptuous allure.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 118 mins. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse