Rated R (1:58)
Opens today at Kahala 8
“I’m back, you bastards.”
“Is that Dior?”
“Have you come about the opossum?”
These are the opening lines uttered by the first three major characters encountered in “The Dressmaker,” Jocelyn Moorhouse’s adaptation of the novel by Rosalie Ham. An intriguing start, made even more so by the actors who are speaking: Kate Winslet, Hugo Weaving and Judy Davis. Winslet, who says line one, is wearing the dress referred to in line two. It’s not Dior, by the way, but it nonetheless effortlessly evokes a certain postwar femme fatale glamour, which is duly undermined by the opossum in line three.
It’s the early 1950s, and Tilly Dunnage (Winslet) has returned to her dusty Australian hometown in search of vengeance. She moves in with her dotty mother, Molly (Davis), and promptly sets tongues wagging and bad memories stirring. As a child, Tilly was bullied by a rich kid and blamed for his death. That supposed crime will be revisited, and the closets of this wicked little hamlet will disgorge their skeletons.
Meanwhile, Tilly will put her sewing skills — acquired in Paris during her long exile — to work outfitting the local women with fashionable frocks. She will also catch the eye of a hunky fellow outcast (Liam Hemsworth) who lives in a trailer with his mother, his mentally challenged brother and a gaggle of other siblings. Moorhouse (whose previous films include “Proof” and “How to Make an American Quilt”) and her costume and production designers make the most of the period setting, and it’s fun to watch good actors play dress-up, especially Weaving, whose character is a cross-dressing constable.
Unfortunately, and despite its promising start, “The Dressmaker” doesn’t move much beyond the level of well-costumed playacting. The tone shifts, abruptly and awkwardly, from jaunty comedy to dark, violent drama, and the plot is a pileup of incident and complication. The contrast between Tilly’s taste and beauty and the townspeople’s nastiness is cartoonishly overdrawn, even as cast members work valiantly to humanize their simplistic roles. They are worth watching, but you find yourself asking about Tilly, What on earth is she doing here? — and that applies to both Winslet and her fellow troupers.
The New York Times does not provide star ratings for movie reviews.