d. Rachael Ward / 2009 / Australia / 101 mins
Downstairs @ Prince Charles Cinema (London, UK)
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this one. I really wanted to like it (an all too common refrain, I suppose, for the type of melodramatic realism that seems to populate much of the Australian feature film market), and it did receive plenty of excellent reviews from critics around the world, but I cannot shake an abiding conclusion that I really just wasn’t sure exactly what this film was trying to tell me.
Relating the story of a small rural family re-united over the father’s deathbed, but still haunted by past tragedies, Beautiful Kate tackles taboos with bittersweet abandon and provides a solid study of the stultifying power of grief and loss.
And without a shadow of a doubt, this is a finely crafted film. Rachael Ward has, in essence, turned in a remarkable debut as writer-director. For starters, it looks absolutely stunning (a tribute to the glorious beauty of the Flinders Ranges, as much as to the cinematography) and Ward has elicited some wonderful performances, particularly from her two male leads – Ben Mendelsohn as the absentee son and Bryan Brown as his bitter, decrepit father – as well as the ever-excellent Rachael Griffiths as the weary daughter left to care for her father. And yet there still seems to be something quite elemental lacking.
I’ve written quite a lot on here lately extolling the virtues of a good bit of ambiguity, but it’s important to emphasise that ambiguity of plot or character is very different to ambiguity of purpose. And whilst Beautiful Kate does occasionally veer into ambiguous characterisation, motivation and plot progression (often with great success), these become a problem when framed by the film’s overarching ambiguity of purpose. Part of the problem, undoubtedly, comes with the inherent difficulties of marrying flashbacks of past lives touched by tragedy, with the gentler tragedies of these characters’ current lives.
It’s tempting to rely, as I’m sure some less enthusiastic Australian critics have in reference to this film, on that old cliche about the lack of script development in Australian filmmaking, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is a problem. To be fair, Rachel Ward is tackling remarkably tricky terrain here and has capably transferred Newton Thornburg’s novel from the midwestern United States to the rural scrub of Australia, managing to maintain the central integrity of the original work. In doing so, Ward has tempered that familiar Australian pathos with a deep, and occasionally dark, emotional undertow. For that she deserves much praise, but whether for the characters or for the film itself, I couldn’t help leaving the cinema feeling a little bereft.