Don't let the Merchant-Ivory-ish title and the highbrow cred of its star Kate Winslet fool you: "The Dressmaker" is no corset-tightening display of manners.
Aussie director Jocelyn Moorhouse's first feature in nearly 20 years (since 1997's "A Thousand Acres") is, rather, a rowdy Down Under prodigal-daughter saga. Due to Winslet's design-savvy seamstress character, it features a wardrobe full of colorful frocks clinging to even more colorful characters, all set against dusty, eccentric Australian provincialism. But what starts as a cheeky lark about bad reputations and snazzy transformations never really gels into something truly funny or even appetizingly weird.
When perfectly coiffed and white-gloved Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage (Winslet) arrives in her remote hometown of Dungatar late one night with a Singer sewing machine, lit cigarette, and "I'm back, you bastards" entrance line, you sense you're in for something that should be scored by a Leone-era Ennio Morricone, rather than your typical local-girl-makes-good scenario.
With steadfast determination she moves in to the possum-infested hovel at the top of the hill to look after her mother, dubbed Mad Molly (the haggishly charming, delightfully chewy Judy Davis), an ill-tempered, infirm heap who seems to not remember who Tilly is but knows she's bad news. We quickly learn there's more to Tilly's return, though, than caretaking and reckoning: There's the answer to the nagging question of whether, as a scared outcast of a girl years ago, she murdered a boy.
Nearly everyone in town believes she did — and Tilly's memory is fuzzy on the details — but Moorhouse's thumbnail introductions to this batch of small-minded, accusatory nincompoops (variously mean, snooty, or clueless, but all cartoonish) pretty much signals that a secret or two about the townsfolk will spill before this is all over. In the meantime, Tilly's expertly tailored makeovers of some of the women — including a meek shopgirl (Sarah Snook) and a broken, abused housewife (Alison Whyte) — go a way toward repairing her name, and there's even a shot at romance with a strapping, sympathetic local farmer (Liam Hemsworth).
Much of "The Dressmaker," which is based on a novel that Moorhouse and her filmmaker husband, P.J. Hogan ("Muriel's Wedding"), adapted, has a fractured fable quality built on rubber-faced acting — save Winslet, shrewd enough to underplay as a contrast — and comic obviousness. A lot of it doesn't land, including a bit involving a rival seamstress (Sacha Horler) whose designs are hopelessly garish and old-fashioned. But there are small pleasures in some outsized moments, whether it's Winslet and Davis grappling with each other like silent film comedians, or Hugo Weaving's cross-dressing sergeant flush with excitement over a tea chest full of sequins and imported fabrics.
The humor is so unmistakably Australian, and the performances (like Kerry Fox's venomous schoolteacher) so committedly high-pitched, that even if you're not laughing, you're in a kind of thrall to the hearty energy of it all. It's as if two decades away from being co-opted by Hollywood gave Moorhouse a backlog of impudent vitality to work out. She gets great help too from stalwart Oz cinematographer Donald McAlpine, who knows a thing or two about the crisp beauty of his country's landscape.
But "The Dressmaker" quickly wears out its welcome. A right turn into straight-faced tragedy feels like a desperate stab at stakes-raising, after which it drags on for another half-hour of suddenly dark and bloody vengeance that literally scorches the movie's already shaky ground. It's one thing to smile in lieu of laughing, but "The Dressmaker" isn't sturdy enough to treat its tone like a costume to be changed at will.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
MPAA rating: R for brief language and a scene of violence
Playing: In limited release