Details: (MA15+), 101 mins, Australia, English
Synopsis: A writer, Ned Kendall, is asked to return to the family home by his sister Sally, to say goodbye to his father who is dying. The family home is in a very remote and isolated area. While back home, Ned starts having memories of his beautiful twin sister and himself when they were children. These memories awaken long-buried secrets from the family's past.
It’s difficult not to place Beautiful Kate in an easily defined lineage of domestic Australian dramas, films where the wayward son returns home to the damaged landscape and patriarchal burden of his youth, films where the long simmering resentment boils over at the dinner table. If we once had a surfeit of coming of age tales we’re now bogged down in passing of age reckonings, a genre where grown children revisit the failings of youth and parents defend their long gone decisions. The past, it appears, may not be another country after all.
Directed by Rachel Ward, who moved the setting from the suburbs of Chicago to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia as part of adapting Newton Thornburg’s 1982 novel, Beautiful Kate turns on the arrival of Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), a 40-ish novelist and long absent son who comes home at the behest of his younger sister, Sally (Rachel Griffiths), to see his ailing father, Bruce (Bryan Brown). A proud farmer made bitter by his physical decline, Bruce keeps a loaded gun in his room even though his words do damage enough.
A film needs to be exceptionally good if it’s going to cover familiar ground. And much of Beautiful Kate’s emotional framework does feel familiar. As Ned sits in his father’s study memories of his childhood start to seep back, especially his sister Kate (Sophie Lowe) and brother Ned (Josh McFarlane). The former died in a car accident and the latter, who was driving, committed suicide shortly afterwards, summarily closing their teenage years.
Ward treats these memories as fragments that are clouded by time and regret; they’re hints but never answers. Neither Ned nor Bruce really want to discuss what transpired, but it lingers over them when Sally departs for several days and Bruce convinces Ned’s fiancé, the young and appallingly self-centered Toni (Maeve Dermody), that she’s better off without him. In a way it is Bruce’s swansong, and Ward strongly grasps the knotted dynamic between father and son.
Befitting her experience in front of the camera, Ward gets solid performances from her cast. Most notably she has moved Ben Mendelsohn past the callowness of youth. With a face that’s starting to fray, there’s now a wounded maturity to an actor we’d perhaps become overly familiar with (it is more than two decades since The Year My Voice Broke…). Mendelsohn provides a genuine, roiling seam of anger to Ned’s domestic interlude.
But the movie’s failing is that Kate is marginalised. She is a fascinating character who is reduced to an outline and a shocking secret. At a certain point the reactions of both Ned and Bruce to what transpired decades prior pale next to the unseen realisations of what occurred and you want to know about the time and place that produced such a young woman, not the tearful and overly forced catharsis that provides two men with a degree of closure. It would no longer have been Thornburg’s novel, but it could have truly been Ward’s film.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
A month of movies with an edge. Saturday nights in April.