Review: Only the frocks fit for Kate Winslet and ‘The Dressmaker’

TORONTO – There have been some bad world premieres at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, but Jocelyn Moorhouse”s “The Dressmaker” has them beat in one significant category: there are worse movies to watch on a plane.

Based on Rosalie Haim”s 2000 novel, the story begins with Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returning to her very small hometown of Dungatar, Australia (so small it's basically one street). Tilly left the town under mysterious circumstances as a small child and returns years later as an expert fashion designer and seamstress.  An unexpected return that is a complete surprise to he overly quirky mother Molly (Judy Davis).  

We soon learn that Dungatar is full of colorful folk including a crossdressing police sergeant (Hugh Weaving), a cruel and vindictive herbal medicine store owner (Barry Otto), a town councilor with a secret past (Shane Bourne), a studly star football player (Teddy, played by Liam Hemsworth) and more nasty stuck up women than you can shake a stick at.  Imagine a slew of Harriet and Nellie Olesons from “Little House on the Prairie” stuck in the countryside of 1950″s Australia and you”ll quickly understand the judgmental powder keg Tilly has stepped into.

These people are quite skeptical of Tilly's motives because it turns out our heroine was accused of murdering a classmate as a child, an incident she has conflicting memories of.  Tilly was essentially banished from the town and eventually, as an adult, her dressmaking talents took her all the way to Europe and the great fashion houses of Paris.   Now, Tilly wants to find out what really happened and uses her incredible dressmaking skills to win over the town”s gossiping ladies while she secretly begins an investigation into this supposed “murder.”  Along the way she falls head over heels for the wonderfully charming Teddy and finds a way to forgive Molly for letting the authorities send her away.

Its admittedly interesting source material, but the movie”s tone is all over the place and not in a good way.  The dramatic elements feel forced and the intentionally funny stuff rarely is.  It's a film that wants to tap into the zeitgeist of the classic Australian comedies of the ’90s such as “Muriel”s Wedding,” “Strictly Ballroom” and “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.”  These were films that found a way to ground over-the-top comedy with effective drama in a coherent experience.  And, in theory, Moorhouse and her husband and co-screenwriter P.J. Hogan should be perfect fits to tackle the adaptation considering she produced and he directed the former of the aforementioned flicks.  That being said, considering how up and down both filmmaker”s careers have been since “Wedding” it”s not that surprising they can”t bring the same magic to “The Dressmaker.”

Beyond the massive problems in tone, “The Dressmaker”s” biggest issue is its story structure.  Obviously, Moorehouse and Hogan want to be faithful to the original source material and that means at one point you think the film is coming to an end.  But, no, something exasperating happens to Tilly and the audience is left with another 30 minutes or so left to watch it all play out.  Taking into account how predictable the elements have been up to this point the realization the film refuses to end is disheartening for the viewer.

Winslet, who can rest easy knowing her awards worthy turn in Danny Boyle”s “Steve Jobs” hits theaters next month, struggles slightly with the comedic elements, but effectively conveys Tilly”s guilty heartache.  Hemsworth is one of the film”s big surprises and this is probably the most charismatic and comfortable he's ever been on screen.   The fact he”s speaking in his native accent helps, but like his brother Chris he appears to have a natural affinity for comedy that has been untapped until this point.  The venerable Davis is probably the only member of the cast who has her pulse on the appropriate tone for the movie (perhaps she should have directed).

The one aspect of the film that deserves significant praise are the dresses themselves.  Marion Boyce and Margo Wilson, who is credited with Ms. Winslet”s designs, whip up some gorgeous ensembles that make you absolutely believe Tilly is a true dressmaking talent.   

If only the rest of the movie fit as well as its frocks.

“The Dressmaker” is still looking for domestic distribution.