Sunday, August 01, 2010

Review - Beautiful Kate

Despite the best efforts of a talented cast and an ambitious first-time director, Beautiful Kate never rises above the dreary familiarity of its subject matter. The film is a rather strained tale of family strife in Australia, with Ben Mendelsohn starring as Ned, a successful author returning to the remote family home he grew up in for the first time in twenty years. There, he will have to face his tyrannical father Bruce (Bryan Brown), but the greater challenge for Ned is to face the ghosts that haunt this house, with every item reminding him of the tragedy that befell his twin sister, the eponymous Kate (Sophie Lowe), when they were both teenagers. Director Rachel Ward refuses to draw boundaries between the past and the present throughout the film, with memories of Kate intruding on Ned's consciousness at every turn. For Ned, there is no escape from the past.

This tactic of allowing the film to flow freely between different time periods is a daring one for Ward to employ, but it has the unfortunate effect of making things feel slightly aimless, whereas a director with a firmer hand may have given the picture more shape. Many of these flashbacks are shot from the point of view of young Ned (the well-cast Scott O'Donnell), although Ward drops that gambit around halfway through the film in favour of a more conventional and less distracting shooting style. Ned is haunted not only by his sister's death but by the incestuous relationship they shared the summer that she died, and Ward handles this difficult plot strand with skill and sensitivity, drawing fine performances from both O'Donnell and Lowe. Lowe gives an especially impressive turn as the enigmatic Kate, her vivacious presence and ability to handle sharp emotional shifts ensuring this character draws us in even as she remains intriguingly unknowable.

Ward is strong with actors on the whole, and their excellent work is crucial in propping up a film that occasionally threatens to lose its way. As Ned's sulky young fiancée, Maeve Dermody is short-changed by the thinness of her characterisation and by the unconvincing nature of her relationship with Ned, but she manages to give a sparky performance while the other three leads do the emotional heavy lifting. Rachel Griffiths gives solid support in a disappointingly small role, but it's Bryan Brown who really impresses as the dying patriarch still filled with rage and spite even as his body slowly wastes away.

For all of this ensemble's hard work, however, Beautiful Kate is ultimately lacking in the deep emotional impact a story like this is reaching for, and part of this is down to the directorial choices Ward makes. The cinematography by Andrew Commis is gorgeous in places, but the hazy style seems to keep us at an emotional remove from the drama, as does the ever-present and slightly grating score. The other problem Beautiful Kate has is that Ward misjudges the point where her tale tips over into melodrama, and the final revelation of a secret kept for twenty years is a real misstep, which gives the film nowhere interesting to go in its closing scenes. This is a beautiful and lovingly crafted piece of work, but it's also the work of a filmmaker struggling to find the balance between style and substance, and it ends up feeling like a rather empty endeavour.