‘The Dressmaker’
Director:
Jocelyn Moorhouse
Stars: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Kate Winslet vamps her way off a cheap bus, decked out in a fine black dress coat and white wide brim fedora. She stops to stare down what’s in front of her: a tiny town buried in the Australian outback. Her white silk gloves pull out a cigarette from a handsome case; she takes a drag. “I’m back, you bastards,” she exhales, with all the contained camp fury of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford combined.

It’s a great way to start a movie — almost as riveting as Bette Davis gunning down her lover sans explanation in “The Letter.” It would even make a great screenwriting exercise: Come up with the wild yarn that comes next. Just about anything would be better than what transpires in “The Dressmaker,” a garbled, tonally schizo revenge dramedy with little narrative drive, which swings like a teetering drunk between Tex Avery cartoonishness and somber old school woman’s picture. It’s its own fault for starting off at the mountaintop before crashing into the canyon.

What does Winslet’s Tilly want? Vengeance. Eventually. In a way. She’s returned to her hometown of Dungatar, a joke name that has nothing on Porpoise Spit, the wretched locale from another picture from this one’s co-writer P.J. Hogan, “Muriel’s Wedding.” She was unjustly banished as a child, for reasons we’ll learn eventually, and the gallery of wacky grotesques she left behind aren’t too happy she’s returned. She won’t destroy them. Far more satisfying would be to decimate their way of life, poisoning their dusty, square digs with fabulous couture and the finest imported duds.

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Far as cunning plans go, Tilly’s is vague, and so is what follows. The plot veers all over the road. It’s as focused as its tone. Before Tyler Perry threw earnest sermonizing and chainsaw-wielding drag performers into the same movies, there were the Australian comedies of the ’90s — films like, again, “Muriel’s Wedding” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which took pride in shifting on a dime between broadest comedy and saddest drama.

“The Dressmaker” tries to bring this era back. But it’s rusty. Jocelyn Moorhouse (“How to Make an American Quilt”) attempts to direct it like a Western but with Barry Sonnenfeld wide angle lens freak-outs. The actors (including Sarah Snook and Kerry Fox) play the evil townsfolk like coked-up maniacs. Meanwhile, after her doozy of a walk-on, Winslet mostly plays Tilly like Mildred Pierce, delivering a quietly devastating portrayal of trauma and isolation. Hers is a fine performance that feels like it was illegally downloaded from another movie, and she melts something fierce when seduced by a local he-man played by a suspiciously charismatic Liam Hemsworth. (Typically a barely sentient mannequin, the Not-Thor Hemsworth seems loosened up when allowed to do his native accent.)

Only Judy Davis achieves balance. As Tilly’s crotchedy, cranky mother — who initially claims to not remember her own daughter — Davis is playing just another caricature. But she’s a) actually hilarious and b) recognizably human when needed. Even while rolling around in a wheelchair or hooting over a shirtless Other Hemsworth, Davis grounds a movie with no center of gravity, one that waffles through a plot sorely in need of steering, which then escalates suddenly and absurdly in its final stretch. In its last moments, it turns into a movie that so over-punishes its heinous characters — including one bit lifted from Tarantino — that it is admittedly, at long last kind of funny.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge