The story: Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) returns to the flyblown outback town of Dungatar after years spent making clothes in the haute couture houses of Europe. She has a mission: To find out what happened the fateful day at the schoolyard a quarter of a century ago that caused her to be sent away from home. Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham.
Australian comedies can be a hit-or-miss - for every classic such as Muriel's Wedding (1994), you get a vile A Few Best Men (2011), a justifiably forgotten stoner flick.
Despite their difference in quality, both of them share a few traits - a willingness to explore bad taste and unlikeability in lead characters, and a rambunctious, ramshackle approach to plotting, to the point where you wonder how they are going to tie everything together.
That is how it is with The Dressmaker and there is more to account for its freewheeling quality than its Australian origins. It has been adapted from Ham's bestseller by P.J. Hogan, the writer-director of Muriel's Wedding.
Directed by fellow Australian Jocelyn Moorhouse (How To Make An American Quilt, 1995), who shares writing credit, the film features a strong female lead who has to fight a community to reclaim her identity and esteem, a theme also found in Muriel. No wonder Hogan was invited to adapt the book.
That central idea is bound up in Tilly's quest for answers, locked up in a town peopled by hypocrites, with the exception of the McSwineys, a family of refuse pickers, and Farrat (Hugo Weaving), a policeman with a cross-dressing habit. A romance develops between Tilly and Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth).
REVIEW / DRAMA-COMEDY
THE DRESSMAKER (PG13)
119 minutes/opens tomorrow/3.5/5 stars
Moorhouse keeps the book's sprawl, not just in story, but also in tone. Tilly's mother Molly (played by Judy Davis) is a cackling madwoman out of a Dickens novel, while the electrifying effect of Tilly's dresses on the townspeople comes from a feel-good romantic comedy.
Winslet's performance, as well as Davis', anchors this rambling affair. The story zigs when you expect it to zag, but that is not a bad thing, especially when its characters are so engaging.