The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet as an estranged beauty who returns home to nurse her sick mother in 1950s rural Australia, sounds like a pedigreed slog, the kind of Oscar contender with sobs and screams underneath a hot sun. Oh, hell no. This is a revenge melodrama with satin and netting, a dagger wrapped up in silk. The second Winslet's Mildred Dunnage sets her sewing machine on the ground and snarls, "I'm back, you bastards," we're delighted to hear we're in for something fun. Mildred was sent off to Melbourne 25 years ago for murdering the 10-year-old boy of the most powerful man in Dungatar. She was 10, too, but no one gave a damn. Her mom was Mad Molly Dunnage (Judy Davis), the village slut, and fat-cheeked bastard Mildred with her bushwhacked bob was barely worth the train fare out of town.
From Melbourne, Mildred fled to Paris and Milan, where she rechristened herself Tilly and studied couture at the hem of the legendary Madame Vionnet, inventor of the bias cut. She bloomed. Now when she marches up the dry hill to her mother's hovel, Tilly is the ripest sight for miles: a vamp who announces her return by wearing a tight red dress and heels to the big rugby game and bending over to make the players throw the match. This isn't the wan Winslet of the period romance Labor Day (self-serious garbage). It's the Winslet we forget Winslet can be, even though we've seen her ace it ten times in everything from Heavenly Creatures to Romance & Cigarettes: fiery, sensual, alive, wicked. We think of her as an old-fashioned actress, but her energy source is even older than that. She's a Grecian statue come to life, a goddess who can change forms — a tree, a deer, a Nazi, an Apple marketing chief — while awing us with her might.
As Aphrodite knew, beauty is power. The Dressmaker director Jocelyn Moorhouse relishes spelling out the truth with Winslet's curves. These desert frumps want what she's having and, like a black satin spider, Tilly waits for her enemies to crawl to her. She transforms an oaf (Sarah Snook, hilarious) into the Dovima of Dungatar, a sexpot who swans around in tight shantung and scores an out-of-her-league fiancé (James Mackay). His snobbish mother (Caroline Goodall) is so miffed that she tries to make her son see his intended in a monstrosity riddled with bows, but the clever girl races out the back door to Tilly's for a costume change and transforms from a balloon to a retro Barbie. "Witchcraft!" her mother-in-law-to-be hisses. Thanks to costume designers Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson and their library of vintage Vogue magazines, it is.
These moments of triumph are delicious. The right frock changes her customer's entire carriage: She stands straighter, looks bolder, and walks with purpose, even if her heels get stuck in the sand. (And the men, who've grown used to running the show, are slow to catch up.) Soon, every woman in town is overdressed in Tilly's poisonous purples and limes — no sugar pastels for these gossips. But in proving her worth to these fools, she's created lovelier monsters. She'd be better off simply stabbing them with her scissors.
I'd happily watch two hours of Tilly's magic makeovers, but before we have a chance to applaud, the plot races past these clods on their dirt catwalk to watch her hesitant courtship with a corn-fed hunk (Liam Hemsworth) whose idea of a good Saturday night is to dare his buddies to make grain angels in the rat-infested silo. Teddy tries wooing her with flowers and movies, and finally realizes the best way is to get fitted for a suit — what woman could resist his muscles, especially on her knees sizing up his, er, waist?
Their scenes together are like a campfire that refuses to catch flame, in part because they reek of perfumed wish fulfillment, and in part because Tilly herself isn't open to love. Marriage requires hope and forgiveness, two things that would make her happy and the movie a drag. She's at her best stomping into the front yard with a bullet-belt stuffed with golf tees and whacking balls though her old schoolteacher's window. Maybe she could have melted once. Under her breath, she mutters that she's lost a child, a shocker with no follow-up. Besides, her mother, a filthy shut-in, is enough of a brat. When Tilly shoves her into the bath, the old woman screams, "Rape!"
At first, we'd be thrilled if Tilly would just let the bag drown. But Davis, a talent who deserves a resurrection, slowly endears her to the audience. She earns our admiration, if only for giving her neighbors the finger for four decades. Even cut down from original author Rosalie Ham's four-part novel, the script is full of kings, queens, and jokers that Moorhouse has to stack and topple. It's impressive how well she lays out Tilly's foes and could-be friends. The film has more trouble toggling between tones, in one scene inviting us to laugh at a clean freak (ha!) one minute before she's raped by her own husband (woe!), or at a bumbling hunchback doctor (Grumpy Cat!) who also batters his wheelchair-bound wife (kill him at the pound!).
One character, cross-dressing Sergeant Farrat (Huge Weaving), mashes up every tone at once. He's the closest thing Tilly has to an ally, and the first person to realize the importance of her return. He greets the prodigal daughter with, "Is that....Dior?" He, too, is bullied by the herd. Yet, time and again, the coward fails to back her quest for justice unless directly bribed. He commandeers her mail and shoves her silks in his face like a pig rooting for truffles. He clinches The Dressmaker's message: Tailoring can't hide a yellow belly. In a town this cruel, Tilly will have to roll out her own red carpet. At least her neighbors' vanity will pay for the cloth — and maybe she can dye it in their blood.