Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage (Kate Winslet) arrives in the tiny backwater of Dungatar, her Australian hometown, like a high-fashion gunslinger -- in stunning knockoff Dior -- lights a cigarette, takes a puff, and announces to no one in particular, "I'm back, you bastards." But instead of packing a six-shooter, she carries a sleek Singer sewing machine that she will use to exact revenge on the mean-spirited locals who drove her away 25 years ago, for a murder she may or may not have committed when she was a chubby-faced, ten-year-old schoolgirl. Unfortunately, Tilly can't remember the details surrounding the death of the bully she was accused of killing, and she desperately wants answers so she can be released from the curse she feels she's been living under since that fateful day.
The Dressmaker, directed by Aussie filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse (A Thousand Acres), is a madcap menagerie of shifting styles and tones. It is, by turns, a broad slapstick comedy that borders on camp, a touching family drama, a devastating tragedy, and a puzzling whodunit. Moorhouse shoots much of the convoluted tale like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, complete with extreme close-ups and ersatz Ennio Morricone music, and other parts like a noir thriller, employing several low-angle, deep-focus shots that would make Brian De Palma swoon. Not all of it works, but enough of it does to keep audiences highly entertained and amused, at least until the arrival of a dizzying, third-act gut punch that viewers will either painfully embrace or outright reject; one's reaction to it will ultimately determine whether the movie works for you or not.
The heart of The Dressmaker, which takes place in 1951, is Tilly's bewildering relationship with her snaggletoothed hoot of a mother, Mad Molly (a delightful, scenery-chewing Judy Davis), who refuses to acknowledge Tilly as her daughter or even say her name. But not to worry, because it's obvious that beneath her gruff exterior beats a loving mom's heart that will eventually warm up to Tilly's unannounced visit, an intrusion that has dredged up a host of hurtful memories. The other key relationship involves Tilly's budding romance with Teddy (a miscast and much-too-young Liam Hemsworth), a former school chum she was once sweet on. As for the townsfolk, they're mostly a kooky mix of cartoonish villains and gossipy busybodies, with Hugo Weaving's cross-dressing police sergeant the most charming and likeable of the lot.
Now, back to that Singer sewing machine. Tilly, who became an expert dressmaker in Paris, uses it to lure her ne'er-do-well haters into her fashion-conscious, revenge-bent world. She drapes them in couture fashion, which gives them the illusion that they are upper-crust somebodies; but what the dresses really do is strip them bare to reveal their shallowness and pettiness, and it's a kick to watch. Among the victims, Sarah Snook's ugly duckling-turned-Cinderella is a standout.
Ultimately, however, The Dressmaker belongs to the radiant Winslet, who proves she's just as adept at comedy as she is at drama. She's the stitch that holds the whole loopy, mismatched wardrobe together, and makes The Dressmaker the great, goofy fun that it is.