“The Dressmaker” is a movie nearly impossible to categorize. It’s a black comedy, a psychological thriller and a Western spoof all at once. More specifically, it seems to combine three unrelated movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” the Spencer Tracy classic “Bad Day at Black Rock” and the camp comedy “Kinky Boots.”
“The Dressmaker” comes close — so close — to stitching it all together. Blessed with a terrific cast, evocative cinematography by Donald McAlpine and a plot that is anything but predictable, “The Dressmaker” can be highly entertaining. It’s also, in the end, hugely frustrating.
Kate Winslet plays Tilly Dunnage, who in 1951 returns to her isolated hometown of Dungatar, Australia, from which she left under a cloud of suspicion. Now a high-end seamstress, she carries her wooden-boxed Singer like a Winchester, ready for a showdown. “I’m back,” she growls, lighting a cigarette like a kid-gloved version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
The plot thickens when we meet her mother, justifiably nicknamed Mad Molly (Judy Davis, ferociously good). Both women have memory problems: Did Tilly really kill a fellow classmate as a child? Somehow, by sewing fine dresses for coarse townsfolk, Tilly intends to solve her mystery.
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In addition to this seriously daffy premise, “The Dressmaker” offers a parade of enjoyable bizarre Dungatarians: the ugly-duckling farm girl (Sarah Snook), the hunchbacked pharmacist (Barry Otto), the cross-dressing cop (Hugo Weaving, in an endearing if slightly stereotypical role). The only levelheaded local is handsome Teddy McSwiney (a cheerful Liam Hemsworth), who doggedly courts Tilly despite their decade-plus age gap.
What mars this potential gem is its zigzagging tone, which changes from farcical to nasty to sorrowful without warning. The grandma with the pot brownies is cute; the drugged rape victim is not. One confrontation turns shockingly bloody, and a series of deaths in the final act makes the film feel like a tragedy.
Written and directed with energy and wit by Jocelyn Moorhouse (“Proof”) from Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel, “The Dressmaker” has so many fun and lively moments that it might be worth seeing. When it’s over, though, you may not be sure what, exactly, you just saw.
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis.
Writer and director: Jocelyn Moorhouse.
Running time: 1:59.
Rated: R, for brief violence, language.