Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to his family home in the bush after 20 years to see his estranged father, Bruce (Bryan Brown) who is dying. He brings his newest girlfriend, sexy, headstrong young wannabe actress Toni (Maeve Darmody), who knows nothing about the family, but soon finds Ned had a twin sister, Kate (Sophie Lowe) and an older brother, Cliff (Josh McFarlane). His sister Sally (Rachel Griffiths) has been nursing Bruce, and there is more to the estrangement than meets the eye. Bruce was never a softie dad but Ned blames his father for worse things than being tough. He also carries a huge burden of guilt, and all the family demons are somehow linked to the beautiful young Kate who is no longer there.
Review by Louise Keller:
Bouquets to Rachel Ward whose adept and sensitive screenplay and direction make this adaptation an emotional journey that resonates acutely. Ward grapples with the elements of remorse, catharsis, forgiveness and redemption of Newton Thornburg's novel and transports them from their Idaho origins to outback Australia. The time frames have been shifted a couple of decades so that the action takes place in the present day, leapfrogging back and forth to the 80s while the all-important flashbacks reveal the secrets that hide behind the dazzling smile of the girl in the photograph: Beautiful Kate.
Ward has captured the essence of the story with such prickly sensitivity that it unravels naturally. Ben Mendelsohn is perfect as Ned, the self-loathing writer haunted by whispers from the past and who is following his trail of wounds as he aches to come to terms with his demons. Rachel Griffiths is wonderfully pragmatic as Sally, the down-to-earth younger sister whose undemanding and selfless philosophy is a contrast to everyone around her ('Blame's a mug's game'). She is genuinely happy when Ned returns after an absence of 20 years and makes no demands. Nor does she make a judgment on his obviously ill-suited, self-obsessed, would-be actress girlfriend Toni (Maeve Dermody, eye-catching), allowing some kind of normality evolve in the remote, outback environment. Sophie Lowe makes a stunning debut as Kate with the taunting smile, the freckled face, long legs and hair casually tossed over her shoulders and on whom the film is anchored. But it is Bryan Brown as we have never seen him before that really grabs our attention ('Youth is beauty and beauty is youth'). He plays Bruce, the father struggling to overcome his inadequacies and find redemption from the son who holds the missing piece of the puzzle he is desperate to complete
Slowly and deliberately, we learn a little at a time about each of the key characters. It is in the flashbacks (when Ned as a teenager is ably played by Scott O'Donnell), that we learn of the events that ignited the emotional fire that destroyed the family. We are prised from the past into the present by the calling of a name, a sudden noise or a simple sound like the boiling of a kettle. There's a definite mood created from the remote locations, emphasized by Andrew Commis' beautiful cinematography - the feeling of space, the isolation, the stark ochre ground, the distinctive knotted bark from the gum trees and the kookaburras laughing in the distance. The music too, is a haunting factor. Like the father who idolises her and the brothers that dote on her, we become obsessed by Kate. There's a crescendo of tears as the story comes to its resolution and we are profoundly moved. Ward opts for emotional understatement and it works. This is a beautiful film and a fitting feature debut for a multi-talented writer and director whose next project we eagerly anticipate.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Rachel Ward doesn't put a foot wrong in her feature debut as writer/director, transposing the American novel with consummate ease into an Australian story - because her instincts are right and it is not rooted in the culture of a country, but in the hearts of the characters. Told in parallel narratives of the present and the damaging, destructive past, the story is clear and balanced, with a contemporary sensibility. The mood is well maintained - an often edgy ordinariness that hides the deep scars that finally surface with irrepressible vigour.
Ben Mendelsohn, one of the finest male actors of his generation (and pathetically underutilised in Australia), is perfectly cast as Ned, whose guilt and shame and hatred for Bruce have crippled him emotionally, even though he doesn't know it. Once in the old environment of his childhood home, the ghosts rush in. Rachel Griffiths is marvellous as his dutiful sister, nursing the grumpy old Bruce, played with remarkable elasticity by Bryan Brown, ageing a good 10 years or more to portray a man whose illness is squeezing the air out of his lungs - and whose relationship with Ned is even more painful.
Maeve Darmody is strikingly effective as the sprightly girlfriend thrown into the deep end of Ned's family cobwebs, but it's Sophie Lowe who just about steals the film with a performance of extraordinary texture, subtlety and complexity, as beautiful Kate, the catalyst for it all. She is a natural on screen, in the vein of Saoirse Ronan (Briony in Atonement), mesmerising and scary all at once.
Tex Perkins and Murray Paterson add enormous visceral value with their music, and the film looks great, both in design terms and cinematographically. A wholly satisfying film, Beautiful Kate will linger - and haunt you.
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Director Rachel Ward on set
BEAUTIFUL KATE (MA)
CAST: Ben Mendelsohn, Bryan Brown, Rachel Griffiths, Sophie Lowe, Maeve Darmody, Scott O'Donnell
PRODUCER: Bryan Brown, Leah Churchill-Brown
DIRECTOR: Rachel Ward
SCRIPT: Rachel Ward (novel by Newton Thorburg)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Andrew Commis
EDITOR: Veronika Jenet
MUSIC: Tex Perkins, Murray Paterson
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Ian Jobson
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 6, 2009