“I’m back, you bastards,” declares Kate Winslet’s Tilly Dunnage upon arriving back in her home town at the outset of “The Dressmaker.” It’s a fitting start for a movie that revels unapologetically in camp, from dialogue to literal barn-burning events (and perhaps even too far with Hugo Weaving’s sheriff with a flair for drag). And had the film stuck to its true colors, the whole thing might have held together.
But it doesn’t, largely due to writer/director Jocelyn Morehouse’s insistence on trying to play parts of the movie like a straight drama. At one point, Tilly and company watch Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard,” a film where Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond hams up the screen to set up a tragic turn. Trying to draw any kind of parallel to “The Dressmaker” to that iconic work only highlights just how far short it falls. Tilly is all smolder and swagger with a faint whiff of armchair psychologizing hat stems from a clichéd tragic misunderstanding in her past.
When this larger than life figure begins to show cracks in her facade, the turn just doesn’t feel right. The score may swell dramatically to signal legitimate dramatic intentions, yet “The Dressmaker” sends such mixed signals that prove baffling to decode. How can it really mourn a freak death in one scene and then humorously inflict a debilitating injury within five minutes? And then, soon after, another death meant to provide catharsis?
The film is fine when Winslet is allowed to revel in vengeance like “Django Unchained.” Watching her seethe while settling old grudges provides some modest pleasure. When the complexity comes in through the slow doling of new developments regarding the incident that drove her out of town, however, “The Dressmaker” falters. C /