Kate Winslet in 'The Dressmaker'.

Kate Winslet in ‘The Dressmaker’.

There’s no way to discuss The Dressmaker without getting into its twists and surprises. If you’re sensitive to spoilers and haven’t seen the movie, it might be best not to read this.

Genre is a dead weight on most movies. Whether it’s tired Oscar-bait like The Theory of Everything, a ‘racy’ rom-com like Trainwreck, or blockbusters reconstituted from the parts of other blockbusters, the familiar constraints of genre squeeze out any chance of surprise. The genius will suffer and his wife will believe in him; the wild girl will settle down when she meets the right man; the two kids will flee from dinosaurs in a mismanaged theme park, as two other kids did twenty years before. We know before the lights go down what we are getting. We know the tropes, the stock characters, and the story rhythms. Movies like this might vary in the quality of execution, but they’re built to give us the same thing over and over.

One of the chief pleasures of The Dressmaker is how slippery its approach to genre is. After an hour, I thought I knew what it was: a rom-com about a small-town exile finding romance and fulfilment in returning home. Like so many Australian movies in the wake of Muriel’s Wedding, it conceived its characters broadly, in terms of their quirks: the townspeople are caricatures, each with a defining eccentricity. As Kate Winslet finally went to bed with Liam Hemsworth, the movie seemed to be moving toward a standard happy ending.

Hemsworth dies in the very next scene, and writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse (she adapted Rosalie Ham’s novel with P.J. Hogan) devotes the rest of the film to confounding our expectations. The townspeople’s foibles are not loveable excesses but rather symptoms of their sour single-mindedness. It’s a condemnation of small-town life (and, by extension, Australia itself): its cultural poverty, its self-righteousness, its fear of outsiders. One by one, the people of Dungatar get their desserts. At the end of the film Winslet burns the place down.

The film’s characters and moments acquire new meanings in the context of the second half. Shane Bourne plays Evan Pettyman, the big man in town; his wife Marigold (Alison Whyte) is such a nervous wreck that she never leaves the house. In their first scene together, he gives her a sedative and rapes her while she sleeps. It’s presented so broadly – and from his perspective – that it seems intended, Carry On-style, as funny. But then his wife’s (violent) revenge is shot the same way, and the meanings change in retrospect. Trudy (Sarah Snook) is presented in the first half as a sympathetic Cinderella figure, Winslet’s Tilly acting as her fairy godmother. Tilly’s dresses make Trudy desirable in the eyes of her wealthy Prince Charming. Once her Prince is won, however, Trudy fast becomes a snob, emulating the mother-in-law who tried to block their marriage. People’s worst instincts usually win out.

Movies that don’t conform to genre often discomfit people. You can sense it in some of the movie’s reviews: in his one-star review in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw calls it a “tonally misjudged mix of unfunny smalltown comedy and unconvincing smalltown tragedy.” Yet it is this mixture of tones that makes the film vivid – and links it back to Hogan’s 1994 masterpiece. Muriel’s Wedding also used caricature to make its cold-eyed view of small-town life more palatable. It too ends with its heroines renouncing family and home. The Dressmaker is not quite on the same level, but that central renunciation has not lost its power.