In 19th Century New Zealand, the sea port town of Hope, dressmaker Dorothea Brook (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) surveys the immigrants arriving at the docks. She is looking for a man, not for herself, but for her sister Rose (Kiri Mills), who has been led astray by the efforts of professional scoundrel Fraser (Cliff Curtis), and left her addicted to opium and pregnant with his child. Dorothea spies Lawrence Hayes (Kevin Smith) in the crowd and knows that he is the man for her; what she plans is for Lawrence to marry Rose to spare her the shame of her predicament, but matters are not going to work themselves out as easily as that, as she soon discovers.
Written by the directors Stewart Main and Peter Wells, Desperate Remedies is a passionate, way over the top melodrama that might remind you of an old Margaret Lockwood movie, only with more blatant sex and added homosexuality. Filmed on claustrophobic sets that heighten the atmosphere of delirium, the cast have obviously been encouraged to overact as much as they please, which is a bonus to the excessively heated plotting and unbridled emotions on display.
Once you adjust to the mood, and have worked out who is doing what to whom, the film can be fairly diverting. Dorothea finds herself reluctantly falling for Lawrence, just as he is more interested in her than her sister, but there are complications in that Dorothea is being wooed by prospective governor William (Michael Hurst), who wants a share of her business and respectability, and meanwhile the dressmaker is in love with her assistant and closest friend Anne (Lisa Chappell), who is helping her help her sister.
The costumes are extravagant and occasionally revealing, and the dialogue is flowery and floridly written. There's society of two tiers in Hope, with Dorothea having to mix with both the moneyed classes and the poor who live beside the docks, all to see her plan succeed. The highly decorated sets of the rich contrast with the grime of the poor's surroundings, which contributes to the conflicts between the characters: Dorothea and Anne have a lot to lose, and Lawrence and Fraser have a lot to gain.
With all these tempers running high, and swooning emotions overwhelming everyone, there's a point where Depserate Remedies starts to grow exhausting. Despite the depth of feeling from the personalities, the tone doesn't rise above the superficial, verging on the shrill, and there's only so much camp you can take without looking for something a little more genuine. The story has to jump forward two years to reach a satisfying conclusion, and although true love wins out in the end, the resolution is as unconvincing as the questionable sincerity. However, if full-blooded pastiche at energy levels of one hundred per cent appeals to you, then this film is an experience you'll enjoy. Music by Peter Scholes.