It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that the audience partial to Kate Winslet is getting a real bargain with her latest, the small-town comedy-drama “The Dressmaker.” Filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse’s adaptation of fellow Aussie Rosalie Ham’s quirky gothic novel is too tonally erratic to be completely satisfying. But we do get two Kates for the price of one, in a sense, as this crazy quilt of a movie allows her to play both entertainingly vampy and vulnerable. It might not all flow, but between Winslet and castmate Judy Davis’s various spitfire moments and some potent dark turns, there’s a fair amount to like.
Winslet is an outrageously vibrant bloom amid the outback dust as Tilly, nee Myrtle, a Paris haute-couture designer drawn back to her small-minded hometown in ’50s Australia. The first of Moorhouse’s recurring, mischievous western riffs gives the idea that Tilly is here for payback, with six-shooter — um, Singer sewing machine — ready and loaded at her hip. Her actual agenda is to tend to her mum (scene-stealer Davis), a housebound borderline senility case who initially cuts an appearance like John Hurt in ratty drag, and who’s not so affectionately called Mad Molly by the locals.
Soon enough, Tilly is immersed in all manner of preoccupations and distractions, with Winslet playing the character to suit the situation. She glamorously revels in scandalizing the petty folks she’d left behind, a slightly overdone gaggle that includes the resident politico (Shane Bourne), the town schoolmarm (Kerry Fox, “Shallow Grave”), and a dowdy shopgirl (Sarah Snook). But the story back-burners Tilly’s fiery defiance regularly, whether she’s self-loathingly resisting the overtures of kindly hunk Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), or sorting out troubling mysteries about a childhood glimpsed in color-drained flashback. Heck, she’s even accommodating enough to give her haters satiny makeovers. (Not that these ladies have got anything on the outpost’s sympathetic, cross-dressing police sergeant, gamely played by Hugo Weaving in a throwback to “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” fabulosity.)
It probably shouldn’t surprise us to see Moorhouse’s actors hitting a variety of notes. After all, her work has ranged from working on the effervescent “Muriel’s Wedding” with her director husband (and “Dressmaker” co-scripter), P.J. Hogan, to recruiting Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange for the exhaustingly bleak “A Thousand Acres.” But it’s a bit much for Moorhouse to stuff it all into the same piece, with nary a care about the seams.
Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Written by Moorhouse and P.J. Hogan, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham. Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving. At Kendall Square. 118 minutes. R (brief language, a scene of violence).