Beautiful Kate

Beautiful Kate

Director: Rachel Ward
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Bryan Brown, Rachel Griffiths, Sophie Lowe.
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Runtime: 101 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Strong sexual themes and sex scenes, strong coarse language and nudity

Described by its writer-director Rachel Ward as “a Gothic love story”, Beautiful Kate addresses some pretty heavy themes — incest, suicide, guilt, family breakdown — and does it without flinching. It is an impressive directorial debut for actress Ward, the wife of Bryan Brown, but it must be pointed out that, given the controversial subject-matter and crudities of language (see the MA15+ classification), it is not a film for all tastes. And, considering the absence of a moral stance, it is particularly unsuitable for immature audiences.

Ward has adapted a novel by American Newton Thornburg that is set in the USA, and by transplanting the setting to the extremely photogenic Flinders Ranges in South Australia she gives it a distinctly Australian flavour. The film palpably evokes humdrum life in a remote, rundown country farmhouse, helped in no small measure by Andrew Commis’s wonderful cinematography.

Bruce Kendall (Bryan Brown) is dying of congestive heart disease on his sheep station, Wallumbi, where he is looked after by his youngest daughter Sally (Rachel Griffiths). He has summoned his surviving son Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), a successful novelist, to his bedside before he goes, and the film begins with Ned driving through the night accompanied by his much younger fiancée Toni (Maeve Dermody), a truculent city glamour girl with no affinity whatever for the outback life. Ned has been estranged from his father for some 20 years. He left abruptly after the family was shattered by tragedy — the death in a car accident of Ned’s twin sister, the beautiful Kate of the title (Sophie Lowe), and the subsequent suicide of their brother Cliff (Josh McFarlane), who was driving the car.

Returning to the family home, Ned has to confront the issues that divided him and his father and he has to deal with the painful suppressed guilt concerning that fateful last summer. It is made harder for him by the sick old man’s belligerence and by the attitude of Toni after she reads some of the stories he starts writing as the memories are stirred.

Rachel Ward’s firm grasp of the complexities of the story gives no hint that this is her first feature. Her script is tightly written, without extraneous elements, and she is skilful in her handling of the frequent flashbacks to the days when vibrant teenager Kate was alive (in which Scott O’Donnell is effectively cast as the young Ned).

Performances are so smoothly complementary that one assumes that Ward had exceptional affinity with her actors, and it is a comparatively rare pleasure to see such good ensemble work from an Australian cast.

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