Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage is back in Dungatar, Australia. It’s a dreary, small-minded nothing of a place, but there are demons to confront and scores to settle, and Tilly won’t rest until she’s righted those old wrongs. There’s magic (and marijuana) in her fancy-fabric bag, and – armed with her trusty Singer – she stitches up the spiteful mob.
The Dressmaker starts off wonderfully, with languid, hazy landscapes stretching out across the screen. Tilly (the ever-fabulous Kate Winslet), is as incongruous as they come, bringing glamour and a swagger to a tired, washed-out town. It’s a cartoonish, fairy-tale-ish film, with the characters writ large – and, at least to begin with – this is part of its charm. There are echoes of Edward Scissorhands here, both in the storytelling style, and in the bold, broad-strokes design. Tilly ‘rescues’ the town’s women with preposterous costumes; before long, they’re all tiptoeing along the dusty streets in high heels and cocktail frocks, corseted and primped for the daily drudge. They feel sexy and powerful, but they’re just pawns in Tilly’s game; it’s no coincidence that her own wardrobe becomes more muted as she reels them in.
The cinematography is beautiful; the acting sublime (with excellent support from Judy Davis, Kerry Fox and Hugo Weaving, all on finest form). The first two-thirds of this film are a delight. How disappointing then, to find the story arc fatally disrupted, and a final third that feels ridiculous, hysterical and hideously prolonged. There is a clear ending to this tale, and it occurs at about the eighty-minute mark; thereafter it’s an incoherent mess – and it can’t recover from this flaw.