A woman wears sunglasses, a tight red dress, matching long gloves and red lipstick. She stands and smokes a cigarette, ostensibly watching a rugby game, but really the players are watching her, fumbling their footwork, and it's exactly the effect she desires. This early scene, with its shifting gazes and splash of lurid color, suggests a film that might be fun and provocative. Unfortunately, The Dressmaker does not deliver on this early promise.
Set in 1950s Australia and based on a novel by Rosalie Ham, director Jocelyn Moorhouse's film concerns a dressmaker, Tilly (Kate Winslet), who returns to her rural hometown to see her ailing mother (Judy Davis) and work through increasingly convoluted questions of identity. Tilly was cast out of the town at a young age, accused of murdering a local boy. It's revealed in flashbacks that she is not in fact a murderer, but the film revels in misfortune, mistaking a cruel attitude toward its poor, struggling characters for black humor.
Tilly stands in obvious contrast to those around her, and her dresses, with their low necklines and hourglass shapes, offer a welcome dose of contemporary glamour. All of the townspeople are presented as uneducated and unattractive, with the exception of Ted (Liam Hemsworth), a farmer who becomes her lover and meets a tragic fate that can only be described as a cruel "gotcha!" Tilly's couture has the power to imbue a woman with confidence, which only stokes the resentment of the townswomen: She may have committed a crime, and now she's coming back home and getting everybody's attention -- who does she think she is? Moorhouse seems to think most of her provincial characters are fools.