Aug 2, 2010

Film Review: Beautiful Kate

DIR: Rachel Ward
CAST: Ben Mendelsohn, Sophie Lowe, Bryan Brown,
Rachel Griffiths, Maeve Dermody

At the very least, you can’t fault Rachel Ward’s directorial debut for truth in advertising. Sophie Lowe, who plays the titular Kate, is a real discovery; talented and almost unfeasibly good looking. Unfortunately, though there is much that is interesting here, the film that surrounds Lowe’s surely star-making turn is patchy in the extreme.

The problem is really familiarity. It’s another in a long line of films about grown children, dying parents, and old family secrets being dragged kicking and screaming into the present. The setup has 40-year-old Ned (Mendelsohn) returning home for the first time in two decades to visit his younger sister (Griffiths) and their dying father (Brown). Being home again triggers memories of his last summer in the outback, the summer his twin sister Kate (Lowe) died in a car crash and their brother Cliff killed himself. To me, especially given the revelations about Kate and Ned (which, while extremely taboo, aren’t especially surprising) the film felt much like Tim Roth’s The War Zone seen in rose tinted flashback.

Rachel Ward’s film divides pretty neatly in two. About sixty percent of the screentime is given over to the present day story of the return of the prodigal son (initially with his very young girlfriend, played as a stroppy stereotype by Maeve Dermody). This is where the film feels like it is treading water. We’ve seen this troubled father/son relationship a million times before and while Mendelsohn is strong, and the regular unveiling of Dermody’s breasts is to be welcomed, these things can’t rescue this section of the film from Bryan Brown.

Brown is one of the film’s producers, He's also Ward's husband, and it's pretty clear from his performance that she's either intimidated by the idea of directing her husband or simply so in love with everything he does that she doesn't feel the need to direct him. Even though he spends much of the film lying in bed and refusing to eat, Brown chows down the scenery with gusto, hugely overacting his character’s every utterance (right down to his breathing). It creates a gaping hole at the centre of the film, because one side of its most important relationship is totally lacking in credibility. For the most part Mendelsohn gives a dialled down performance, and is all the better for it, but towards the end of the film he too orders up a big slice of ham, in a scene redolent of Tom Cruise’s big crying scene over his dying father in Magnolia.

The flashbacks prove welcome respite from the present day story; shot with a glow that suggests that some of what Ned is remembering is perhaps being seen through rose tinted glasses, these scenes are the film’s most beautiful, and also its most involving. That’s thanks to a vital, energetic, risk taking performance from Sophie Lowe, who brings Kate to vivd life, allowing you to really understand why this girl and these events have resonated in this family for two decades. The other young actors also do a nice job with what is a rather rote script (also by Rachel Ward) but they are all but acted off the screen by Lowe.

Rachel Ward makes a promising, rather than a brilliant, directorial debut. She shows that she has an eye for a nice shot, even if it’s not especially original. Visually a lot of the best moments centre on Kate, often viewed through doorways and windows, as if she’s always being looked at, and there is one especially striking shot of Mendelsohn alone in a dark corridor outside his father’s room. Ward’s grasp slips when it comes to the film’s pacing, at times the present day story is repetitive and excruciatingly slow, especially given the much more interesting flashbacks, and she also seems to lack a firm hand with some of the actors, to be unable to pull them back when they are overplaying a moment. That’s only an issue with some of the performances (Rachel Griffiths, for example, pitches her small role perfectly), but it does undermine the whole.

There are people from this film that I’ll be watching out for; Rachel Ward may yet blossom as a director, but this script is just too middle of the road, and Sophie Lowe (who single handedly makes this film worth the price of admission, whatever its other strengths and weaknesses) is somebody I’ll be keeping a very close eye on. All told, Beautiful Kate is something of a mess, but even if it doesn’t quite come together there is enough in it that is good to make it worth a look.

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