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Sometimes labelling a film as odd is a positive, as its peculiarity can help to set it apart from its peers. Unfortunately The Dressmaker can't be labelled a success because of its quirks. Instead, its oddities never mix, while its over abundance of plots and narrative threads, none of which come to the fore, just pile up on top of each other, and in the end take away from the few positives that the movie actually has.
The Dressmaker kicks off in 1926 with the mysterious death of schoolboy Stewart Pettyman. The only witness to Pettyman's demise is his fellow schoolmate Myrtle Dunnage, who is rashly branded a murderer by the townsfolk, led by Stewart's father and councillor Evan Pettyman, and kicked out of her town. The film then moves forward 25 years, with Myrtle (Kate Winslet) returning to the town a successful dressmaker under the new name of Tilly, who is not just out to take care of her mentally ill mother Molly, but to also gain revenge, and to cure the curse that she believes has blighted her since that fateful day.
This murder-mystery is just one part of The Dressmaker, though, as Myrtle's prevalence as a tailor and designer soon wins over the town and she starts to make dresses for all the women in the town. At the same time, evil schoolteacher Beulah Harridence (Kerry Fox) and the just as wicked Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) look to keep the secret of Evan's death hidden, while there's also cross-dressing police chief Horacio Farrat (Hugo Weaving), a romance and rivalry for Tilly with ruggedly handsome neighbor Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and fellow dressmaker Una Pleasance (Sacha Horler), respectively, as well as an affair, rape, and several deaths as Tilly's curse wreaks havoc, too.
None of which you ever feel compelled by, as this mishmash of light comedy, romance, small-town ensemble, and melodrama in a period setting with a revenge driven western ambience never combines or settles and instead feels more like topsy-turvy vignettes than a coherent piece. Wildly erratic to the point of borderline incoherence, The Dressmaker has some nice touches and flourishes. But you still end up both pitying and questioning its stellar cast. Which is especially a shame considering the esteemed acting talent that The Dressmaker has at its disposal.
They're able to make it just about bearable, though. Kate Winslet is always a joy to watch, and she is immediately eye-catching as Tully in her repeatedly decadent ensembles. As she has always done she is also able to add a gutsy but tormented depth to the gloss, too. But it's Judy Davis as Tilly's mother Molly Dunnage that's the real highlight. Constantly drunk with an edge of psychosis for good measure, too, everything that comes out of her mouth is either funny, shocking, or both, and she's able to briefly illuminate The Dressmaker out its tedium.
Hugo Weaving, Liam Hemsworth, Shane Bourne, Sarah Snook, Kerry Fox, and the rest of ensemble make a teeny tiny impression when they're given the chance, but there's just enough room or time for them to even remotely excel as The Dressmaker is overloaded from the get go. It also isn't assisted by its tone, as its light, light ever so lightweight comedy, which just isn't funny enough, rallies and struggles against other the intended drama of its other plots.
It's not that The Dressmaker is unlikeable. It's way too genial to deserve such malice. It just amasses to be entirely nondescript, which considering the amount that it squeezes in to its running time is quite an achievement. It's just unfortunate that it's one that's not worth celebrating.