Friday, September 23, 2016

The Dressmaker: Kate Winslet Sews

Never before has a stone-cold vengeance-taker been so passive and mild mannered. We really ought to fix up this supposedly scandalous seamstress with Adam Sandler’s Cobbler, so they could go be cloying together. However, the well of quirkiness will eventually run dry in the tonal train wreck that is Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

To paraphrase the tag-line of The Hateful Eight, nobody leaves Paris for the outback backwater of Dungatar without a damn good reason. Of course, that reason would be revenge. The town done Tilly “Don’t Call Me Myrtle” Dunnage wrong when they wrongfully blamed her for the death of entitled bully Stewart Pettyman and sent her away to boarding schools (looks to us like they did her a favor, but whatever). Dunnage still holds a grudge for the physical and emotional abuse she and her vinegary-tongued old mum Molly endured, but she gets sidetracked from her pay-back mission when her original couture designs prove popular with the women in town.

In between fittings and measurements, Dunnage will try to uncover the truth of what happened to Pettyman (surnames are truly destiny in The Dressmaker) that fateful day. Of course, it is blindingly obvious to viewers what went down, but I can’t blame Dunnage for suppressing her memories. I had to go to hypnosis therapy to recover my repressed memory of this film.

Lest you think Dressmaker is all about empowerment through frocks and sashes, be warned. The film takes a ridiculously dark turn down the stretch. Frankly, it is almost worth recommending Dressmaker just to watch it go perversely out of its way to alienate its core audience. However, you still have to sit through the nauseatingly saccharine first two acts to get there.

Honest to Betsy, Moorhouse and co-screenwriter P.J. Hogan throw in just about every awkwardly dated cliché you could think of adapting Rosalie Ham’s novel. There is the senile-like-a-fox mother, the cross-dressing town constable oohing and awing over Dunnage’s latest fabric swatches, and the hunky shirtless neighbor looking out for his developmentally disabled brother (and maybe Dunnage too, if she will let him). Dressmaker would have been derivative in the early 1990s. In 2016, it is such an off-key spectacle of shtick, Meryl Streep will probably get nominated for it, even though she isn’t even in the picture.

Kate Winslet’s judgment is usually rather sound, so it is surprising to find her in this chick flick from Hell. It is even more disappointing to see Hugo Weaving recycling such dated stereotypes as the fashion-conscious Sergeant Farrat. You were Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy, try to show some dignity, for crying out loud.

It is downright painful watching The Dressmaker, but at least the movie will wreak vengeance upon itself, on viewers’ behalf. It is hard to imagine this is really what Moorhouse, Hogan, and company had in mind originally, but the film was a decent hit in Australia, so presumably six or eight Foster’s helps the audience swallow it down. Not recommended, The Dressmaker opens today (9/23) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.