“I’m back, you bastards.”
So Tilly Dunnage announces in “The Dressmaker” as she arrives in her hometown of Dungatar, a miserable little splotch on the map in rural Australia. It’s the 1950s, and in that greeting Tilly — played with the usual aplomb by Kate Winslet — sums up her feelings about the place and its residents and hints at her plans for both. (She issues it in the middle of the night to no one in particular, and thus everyone.)
Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film (the first once she’s directed since “A Thousand Acres” in 1997) is a grab bag of emotions, intentions and moods, a mix she can’t really bring together in a dramatically satisfying way.
Along the way, however, there is much to enjoy about the movie, a series of set pieces whose tone veers sharply, careening from silly comedy to domestic abuse to dressmaking drama to cross-dressing to slapstick to sudden death to arson to a production of “Macbeth” to who knows what else? There’s a lot going on in this little town.
Tilly has spent the last couple of decades in Paris in the world of haute couture, leaving Dungatar in the dust that seems to be its only recognizable attribute, except for the poisonous attitude. But she didn’t leave by choice. When she was a child her shrew of a teacher (Kerry Fox) insisted that she saw Tilly bash in the skull of schoolmate Stewart Pettyman (Rory Potter), killing him. Town constable Sgt. Farrat (Hugo Weaving), buckling under pressure from what passes for power in the town — basically councilor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne), Stewart’s father — sent her away.
Now she’s back, and she has plans.
First off, there’s reuniting with her mother, Mad Molly (Judy Davis, terrific). Molly claims at first not to recognize or remember Tilly; later she joins in the chorus of townspeople who believe she is a killer. But there is also a gradual thawing as more details of their lives are revealed.
Next is setting up shop as a dressmaker. While the residents of Dungatar are dubious at first, her near-miracle of a transformation of the dowdy Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) enchants everyone at a dance, and soon everyone wants a handmade creation — including Sgt. Farrat, who is becoming more and more open about his penchant for cross-dressing.
What Tilly hadn’t planned for is Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a swoon-worthy former classmate who has designs on her (and her designs, when he needs a suit).
Moorhouse, who co-wrote the script with P.J. Hogan (based on the novel by Rosalie Ham), bounces from one scenario to another. The pieces don’t necessarily fit together – Moorhouse doesn’t so much weave them together as drop one and pick up another, then discard it for the next – but since Winslet is the element common to most of them, along with Davis, at least we can enjoy them individually.
There’s a great scene, for instance, in which Teddy takes Tilly on a date to the movies, to see “Sunset Blvd.” Molly tags along — and raves back at the screen, warning William Holden of Gloria Swanson’s motives. (Teddy and Tilly are more amused than annoyed.)
It’s all building to a climax, or so we hope. It’s a roundabout journey to get there, and there are at least a couple of endings too many. Most of the supporting characters don’t have a lot of depth (they tend to have one dominant trait – for instance, Evan Pettyman is a one-note jackass).
But Winslet and Davis salvage what they can from the movie — a heroic effort, almost, making it a fun trifle, albeit one with some deadly serious overtones.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
Broad Green Pictures and Amazon Studios present a film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and written by Moorhouse and P.J. Hogan, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated R (for brief language and a scene of violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.