Classifying movies as “bad” or “good” is hard to do. It’s difficult not only because movies are highly subjective, individual experiences, but also because most movies don’t fit into a binary. In the era when opinions regarding every piece of pop culture under the sun litter the internet, we like to decry movies as either being so offensively horrible that they should never have been made in the first place, or seminal masterpieces too perfect for words. The reality is that most movies aren’t failures or masterworks — they’re just okay.
Despite this, every once in a while there comes a movie like “The Dressmaker,” which transcends all these labels. Not exactly “bad” or “good,” it’s a profoundly bizarre mess of a film that’s sort of amazing in a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” kind of way, but mostly terrible in every other respect.
“The Dressmaker” (directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse) is an early 1950s period piece that tells the story of Tilly Dunnage, played by Kate Winslet (“Steve Jobs”). Tilly, a glamorous and worldly fashion designer, returns to her hometown, the Australian outback town of Dungatar, to take care of her old, sick mother Molly (Judy Davis, “To Rome With Love”). Tilly is blamed by the town for the death of the town councillor’s son, branding her as an outcast at the age of 10. Her return to Dungatar results in shock and intrigue from the nosy townspeople. Tilly’s only allies are the secretly cross-dressing chief of police played by the impeccably cast Hugo Weaving (“The Hobbit”) and the dashing young Teddy (Liam Hemsworth, “The Hunger Games”).
There’s plenty of good to be found in the movie. Winslet is an excellent femme fatale, and even though Liam Hemsworth’s character doesn’t have any defining traits apart from his physicality (also known as: abs), he rises to the challenge admirably. The movie looks very pretty, with intricate period costumes and a desolate Australian landscape. But at its core, this is a deeply confused movie — confused about what it wants to be and how to tell its story in an effective way.
“The Dressmaker” has a tone problem. It’s equal parts melodrama and black comedy, and if it seems like that’s an impossible combination to work effectively, that’s because it is. It wants to be both a sincere, devastatingly sad film about mob rule and a troubled woman who loses everything and a wacky adventure where death means little because the characters and storylines are told too cartoonishly to elicit empathy from the audience. It’s audacious, but it doesn’t really work.The result is a movie that leaves the viewers not laughing or crying, but rather looking around in confusion, asking if it really just happened.
Despite all of this, “The Dressmaker” may be one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen this year. A character dies by jumping into a sorghum-filled silo to prove his manliness. The police chief is bribed into giving up confidential information about an ongoing investigation with a feather boa. A woman ruthlessly slashes her cheating, raping, lying husband’s tendons and leaves him to bleed to death in their spotless kitchen. Kate Winslet determines the outcome of a football game by distracting the players with a bright red dress. Fire, Shakespeare and hash brownies all play key roles in the movie’s resolution. It’s ridiculous. It’s terrible. It’s glorious.
It would be easy to say that the structural and tonal problems make this a bad movie. It would probably be the more respectable thing to say. And yet, “The Dressmaker” defies all notions of logic and sound judgment. Is it bad? Is it good? Is it nonsense? The answer is yes, probably. But who cares? Just shut up, relax and watch.