Remember how cartoon eyes would literally pop out of heads every time Jessica Rabbit would walk into a room in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The effect is much the same when Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) confidently strides into the tiny, rundown Australia town of Dungatar, decked out in a blazing red dress hugged tight in all the right places (very Jessica Rabbit-esque). The young men on the rugby team can’t concentrate enough to score, but the women of the town can’t take their eyes off of her for a different reason. See, Tilly left the town years ago after being accused of murder, and her return can only mean trouble.
Jocelyn Moorhouse’s revenge comedy “The Dressmaker” kicked off Filmfest DC’s 30th anniversary, and fittingly it’s one of the more acclaimed Opening Night films the festival has ever had, nominated for 13 of Australia’s AACTA awards and winning 5. And for much of the film it’s deserving of those honors as Moorhouse and her husband/screenwriter P.J. Hogan nimbly maneuver through the wildly shifting tones with a flourish that Tilly would adore. The first half of the film is completely nuts, introducing the town’s insane residents and setting up a plethora of seemingly lightweight conflicts for Tilly to face. Nobody is on her side, it seems, not even her mother Molly (Judy Davis) who has gone a bit demented over the years living on her own. She doesn’t even recognize her own daughter, much less remembers anything of the past or that tragic day when Tilly was taken away. But Molly, like her daughter, is a firecracker with a serious hate for the town’s stick-up-the-butt residents. She gets her kicks whacking golf balls at their homes, or directly at their heads.
But not everyone is terrified of Tilly’s return. There’s Liam Hemsworth as handsome, rugged love interest, Teddy; and Hugo Weaving as the flamboyant, closeted cop, Sgt. Farrat, who is so smitten by all of Tilly’s fancy Parisian garments he can barely keep his hands off of them. They comprise all of the support Tilly can muster against the town’s philandering councilor, Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne); his unhinged wife, Marigold (Alison Whyte), who has been sheltered ever since the day Tilly supposedly killed her son. There’s also the town doctor who turns out to be a hunchbacked religious fanatic; the vindictive schoolteacher (Kerry Fox) who has hated Tilly since she was a child; and a number of women who just don’t like that Tilly’s back and catching the eye of all of the eligible men. What unfolds is a madcap Down Under murder mystery, only with a much better fashion sense.
Tilly wants revenge against those who wronged her, but her plot takes a detour after she sews a gorgeous dress for the homely Gertrude (played by the beautiful Sarah Snook) and turns her into the most breath-taking woman in town. The other women soon are beating down Tilly’s door for dresses of their own, seemingly willing to forgive and forget the past. The reconciliation doesn’t last long, though, and soon they are back to making her life a living Hell. If it sounds like a lot is going on, that’s because it is. For a while the film actually benefits from the manic pacing, abundance of characters, and crisscrossing subplots; think “Muriel’s Wedding” which Hogan also wrote. But the second half of the film is entirely grim and what seemed like a virtue before becomes a crushing burden. People start dying, romances are shattered, and yet more storylines are piled on, such as a town play that turns into a fashion competition, totally out of the blue. As the story struggles to wrap up each individual storyline, and try it certainly does, the formerly fast-paced film gets stuck in the mud.
The only thing that keeps the final act mildly enjoyable is the cast, with Winslet as sexy, devious, and funny as she’s ever been. She pairs up perfectly with Davis, who balances Molly’s quirks with a maternal instinct that pays dividends later. Weaving is hilarious as the couture-obsessed cop, while Hemsworth is surprisingly steamy when sharing scenes with Winslet. Ultimately, the cast is the only winning ensemble “The Dressmaker” needs, even if it won’t suit everybody.