Twenty five years after leaving, Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) has returned to her hometown of Dungatar, Australia. A small, rural place, its citizens are scathing and unforgiving to Tilly and her mother, Molly (Judy Davis), because they believe that Tilly killed her classmate when she was ten. Returning to take care of her mother, Tilly finds that nothing much has really changed. The people are still the same. Buelah Harridiene (Kerry Fox), Tilly’s former schoolteacher, is still as nasty and cruel as they come; and Alvin Pratt (Shane Jacobson), the man who holds power over so many in the town and whose son supposedly died at the hands of Tilly, consistently drugs his wife while proceeding to rape her.
The only people who seem to genuinely care about Tilly and Molly are Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) and Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), who has his heart set on wooing her. But believing herself to be cursed and wanting nothing much to do with the town, Tilly maintains her distance. That is, until she becomes the local dressmaker to a suddenly very fashionable town. But once new details arise about the death that occurred so long ago, Tilly is once again the center of all the commotion and the only thing that will shut everyone up is good old-fashioned revenge.
Director and co-writer Jocelyn Moorhouse delivers an uneven film that is torn between its silly humor and its darker tones. This is particularly true in the second half of the film, when the story gets a bit somber and wades further into the deep end of the murder details. The first half is really able to sell its unique characteristics, and that of the townsfolk of Dungatar. They’re a predictable, but rather insane sort of people, each with their own distinct personality. It’s their zaniness that Moorhouse really nails throughout the beginning of the film.
Kate Winslet’s Tilly has a lot of gumption and strength of character, but she’s also exceptionally vulnerable and emotional. She takes care of her mother even when Molly can’t (or won’t) remember her and refuses to fall for Teddy’s quiet charm, maintaining an understandable, emotional distance. Judy Davis as Molly is reluctant to let her daughter back into her life, going as far as pretending to forget her so that perhaps she’d leave town. Their relationship, out of so many, is the one which develops the most. Liam Hemsworth as Teddy is delightful, patient, and warm. He waits for Tilly and is one of the only ones who isn’t quick to believe that she’s committed such a horrible transgression.
Moorhouse’s message is clear from the beginning. Tilly is out for revenge, but not a blatant sort of revenge, on the townsfolk. She’s intent on letting no one bother her and to only take care of her mother, but events lead her to the edge of her sanity and heartbreak pushes her over. The film, however, isn’t so much uncomfortable with getting a bit darker, so much as it doesn’t know how to combine the craziness that are the townsfolk with the background story of the murder. It becomes a little lost in working with the two. Whereas the first half is more concerned with setting the stage, the second half doesn’t always know what it wants to do with the setup it’s created. Regardless, while I wish the story could have been a bit more balanced, “The Dressmaker” boasts great performances by all involved and cashes in on its silly, and occasionally dark, humor.
While I wish the story could have been a bit more balanced, "The Dressmaker" boasts great performances by all involved and cashes in on its silly, and occasionally dark, humor.