One of the most interesting films to come out of Australia for some time.
Wholly uncompromising but elegant with it, Beautiful Kate marks a shift into feature directing for actress Rachel Ward, whose script grafts Newton Thornburg’s American-set novel seamlessly onto the grizzled dustiness of rural South Australia. The results are disquieting, marking one of the most interesting films to come out of Australia for some time.
The set-up is not the thing of note here. Prodigal son Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to his Flinders Ranges family home during what are assumed to be the last few months of his father Bruce’s (Bryan Brown) life. Ned is a writer with a girlfriend half his age (Maeve Dermody) who’s left the nursing of his cantankerous father to his younger sister Sally (Rachel Griffiths) so he can escape the confines of this familial space.
The Kendall’s home is oppressively hot and bright by day, and flooded with inky darkness by night, seemingly stuck in the middle of nowhere. As Ned returns, so do memories of his youth growing up in the house alongside his twin sister, the titular Kate, and older brother, who both died during his teens. Locating the root of Ned’s fractious relationship with Bruce in these emotionally fraught formative years, the story oscillates between past and present, dreamily but ruthlessly uncovering the truth of those years.
Beautiful Kate confronts some truly dysfunctional family issues and does so with a brave lack of moral judgement, skilfully padding out its characters with some mean and immoral traits but never letting them veer into the purely dislikeable. In fact, despite some shocking behaviour, the film’s characters have a heightened humanity, which is mainly down to the exceptional cast.
As is often the case with directors who’ve spent time in front of the camera, Ward elicits multi-faceted performances from her cast, especially Mendelsohn, whose past and present is infused with an eroticism that’s vulnerable and threatening by turns. His Ned is a man on the run from a confusion entrenched in his youth that refuses to be exorcised, even when thrashed out between father and son in the final few days they have left together.
Great cast who will probably deliver more than the plot would suggest.
Enjoyable is not a word that immediately springs to mind, but this is gripping stuff.
Beautifully acted and shot, this isn’t comforting cinema but is bold and haunting, marking Ward out as a director of note.