Tilly (Kate Winslet) used to be known as Myrtle Dunnage when she lived in this small town in the Australian Outback, when she was a little girl living with her mother Molly (Judy Davis) in the house on the hill overlooking the others. But she had to be sent away, and when one night the train pulls in to the station and she disembarks she takes a long look at the place and murmurs, "I'm back, you bastards." But what was so bad about what happened twenty-five years ago? What drove her out? Everyone in the town knows except her, for she has never been sure, she doesn't recall committing a crime so what could she possibly have done? When she walks up to her old home, she doesn't know what to expect...
The Dressmaker was not to be confused with The Dresser, the theatrical hit turned movie back in the nineteen-eighties, this was something entirely different, it was set in a wide open space for a start, and that isolation the location offered made the characters all the more insular. Quite what Tilly thought she was doing heading back there when they had treated her so badly was not quite clear, when she was punished so awfully by people who essentially believed the worst about her with only some flimsy evidence to go by, yet were so keen to demonise her that they thought the accusation of murder levelled against her was a great idea and embraced it with unseemly enthusiasm.
It was almost as if every community needs its scapegoat and Tilly was the unlucky one landed with that, though as we perceive in flashbacks with her background as an illegitimate child born in the mid-twentieth century she was always going to have a rough time of it from those who believed themselves to be one rung up the social ladder. Working from a script by P.J. Hogan, itself based on a novel, director Jocelyn Moorhouse crafted a bitter tale of small town nastiness that evoked visually a very satisfying recreation of the period, and with the protagonist being the titular dressmaker the opportunities to dress up the cast in some fancy clobber were not passed by, not simply the ladies, either.
Hugo Weaving played the local policeman Sergeant Farrat who has a love of cross dressing he keeps secret from the town, and he is sympathetic to Tilly more or less because she affords him the chance to get access to all those frocks he could fit into with a little care and attention. However, as the story progressed Farrat woke up to the possibility that he had been colluding in the damning of an innocent person, and becomes an ally in his remorse. Tilly's mother proved a harder nut to crack, even though she moves in with her and after cleaning up her home makes it the base of her operations, offering her services as fashion expert to the uncultured folks she managed to escape from all those years back.
Again, though you could understand Tilly wanting to clear her unwanted and undeserved reputation, you still cannot credit her with the self-possession necessary to return to what, for her, was an absolute hellhole of rumour and suspicion. But it was that seeking after belated justice that drove a plot which in truth needed more flesh on its bones; fair enough, Moorhouse was concocting an updated Western of sorts and the loner looking for vengeance in the out of the way community was not exactly a novel one where that theme was concerned, but it didn't really need a two hour long movie to tell what was so overfamiliar in the first place. There were nice turns from Winslet, whose character is not as strong as she would like to be as her "curse" hounds her with even more ill fortune, and Liam Hemsworth provided love interest as the man who finally works out what actually happened to set off this chain of events, while the character turns from the vile villagers were well observed if caricatured, but it all wound up pretty much as you'd have expected from the second Tilly steps down from the train. Music by David Hirschfelder.