When “The Dressmaker” played at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year, I sat through the trailer for it at least a half-dozen times. That was enough to make me not want to see the film.
The trailer advertised the kind of cutesy comedy that has proliferated since “The Full Monty” conquered the world, full of Adorable Eccentrics and Zany Elderly People and wink-wink double entendres that were corny in the 1950s.
Well, trailers can mislead. Now “The Dressmaker” is opening for a regular run, and it turns out to be much odder, much stranger, and much more interesting than its marketing.
The story is set in 1951 in small-town Australia, a continent where small towns — at least in the movies — are invariably hives of outcasts, crackpots, and usually a murderer or two. This place is no exception.
Into the dusty village of Dungatar comes Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (Kate Winslet) an incongruously glamorous figure. Tilly moves back in with her lemony mom (Judy Davis) and begins designing her high-fashion outfits for members of the local population.
Everybody’s wondering why Tilly has returned after 25 years. She was banished in childhood after being accused of killing a schoolmate; Tilly wants to find out what really happened.
“The Dressmaker” begins like a film noir, with Donald McAlpine’s photography and David Hirschfelder’s music conspiring to set the mood. But slapstick comedy breaks out very quickly, and so does some very, very black humor.
In fact, director Jocelyn Moorhouse (adapting Rosalie Ham’s novel) gleefully blends laughter and shocks. She works with a scalpel — the characters, the one-liners, and, of course, the costumes are shaped with precision.
It’s a pleasure to see a well-crafted film, even one full of unlikely events. The final dialogue exchange is so satisfying it might’ve been written by the great Billy Wilder.
Dungatar is full of wacky types, including the country boy (“Hunger Games” guy Liam Hemsworth) who takes a shine to Tilly, and the local constable (Hugo Weaving), who has a juicy secret life. By the way, the veteran Mr. Weaving is long overdue for an Oscar nomination, and if his first line and final scene here don’t qualify him for a Supporting Actor nomination, I don’t know what could.
The rest of the cast is full of Down Under pros, including Kerry Fox and Barry Otto. Among them, Kate Winslet cuts a strong central figure.
Moorhouse, whose superb debut film was the 1991 “Proof” (starring Weaving and a baby-faced Russell Crowe), hasn’t directed a feature in almost 20 years. The weirdness of tones here — sometimes cartoony, sometimes tragic — is different enough to be really refreshing. Let’s not wait 20 years for a follow-up.
“The Dressmaker” (3 stars)
A mystery woman (Kate Winslet) returns to the small Australian town from which she was banished 25 years earlier. This movie has a weird blend of slapstick humor and tragedy, but director Jocelyn Moorhouse cuts it together with scalpel-like precision. With Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth.
Rating: R, for violence, language
Showing: Oak Tree, Seven Gables, Meridian