Review: 'The Dressmaker' Doesn't Quite Fit

Rachel LaBonte ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Visually stunning and surprisingly touching, The Dressmaker is a quirky film that sometimes struggles to find a good balance in tone, but ultimately succeeds in telling its story. Filled with a colorful cast of characters, including Hugo Weaving’s cross-dressing sergeant and Liam Hemsworth’s hunky Teddy, the film is never without a story to tell. After being thrown out of town for allegedly murdering a boy when she was younger, Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (Kate Winslet) has returned to the dreary town of Dungatar to get revenge on those who did her wrong and to put to rest a mystery of her own.
From the moment she arrives, it is clear Tilly doesn’t fit in. Her designer dresses (one of the best parts of the film) and leather suitcases stand out amongst the dull brown landscape. She steps off the bus, lights a cigarette, takes in her surroundings, and declares, “I’m back, you b*******.” It’s almost her way of telling the audience to get ready for a wild ride.

Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker. Photo Credit: Broad Green Pictures.
The Dressmaker doesn’t quite live up to the craziness expected from it, but it certainly comes close. Winslet is the star here, doing an excellent job of playing all of Tilly’s conflicting emotions. Upfront, her anger towards the people of Dungatar is palpable, and Winslet owns it through cool stares and carefully calculated movements. But during the quieter moments with Teddy and Tilly’s mother (Judy Davis), she allows Tilly’s vulnerabilities to shine through the cracks in her ruthless persona. The moment where she finally pieces together what really happened on that fateful day where the little boy died, the grown Tilly visibly reverts back to the scared girl she once was, and Winslet plays it with a heartbreaking rawness.
Besides Winslet, the standout performer here is Judy Davis. Playing ‘Mad Molly’, Tilly’s sickly, wise-cracking mother, Davis has a ball here. Her moments were easily the funniest in the film. Tilly and Molly’s relationship is strained and initially hidden behind a lot of unanswered questions. However, as the film progresses, the ice between them thaws, and the film finds its heartfelt moments. When they talk about what happened when Tilly was taken away, Davis and Winslet both do an excellent job of conveying each woman’s regret and sorrow.
Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker. Photo Credit: Broad Green Pictures.
If Tilly and Molly’s relationship soars, Tilly’s other significant interaction falls flat. Teddy is the handsome man from town who flirts with Tilly and tries to get her to come away with him. Hemsworth does an admirable job of playing him, but unfortunately he isn’t given much to work with. Teddy has little substance, despite coming from a big family. There could have been a lot of story there for him, but screenwriters P.J. Hogan and Jocelyn Moorhouse (who is also the director) chose not to explore it. Instead, Teddy’s main purpose is to look gorgeous (not necessarily a bad thing) and be Tilly’s cheerleader. Hemsworth and Winslet are both attractive people, but they lack the chemistry needed to make their scenes memorable. The romance between their characters doesn’t feel special; it just seems like the same kind of romance viewers have come to expect between a wronged, so-called ‘cursed’ woman and a man who sees nothing but stars when he looks at her.
As the film goes on, more serious moments are thrown in, and this is another area where The Dressmaker stumbles. Moorhouse has difficulty finding a nice balance between quirkiness and seriousness. It’s more jarring to go from a funny moment to a depressing one. It would have served Moorhouse better to stick with the quirky side and just go all in, instead of trying to up the stakes with sadness. But for all its missteps, The Dressmaker still manages to pull genuine smiles and laughs from its audience, and that’s why it proves to be a winning film.
Overall Grade: B
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