The need for human beings to address the past in order to live properly in the present is memorably realized in “Beautiful Kate,” a highly accomplished writing-helming debut by thesp Rachel Ward. Carefully transporting Newton Thornburg’s (“Cutter and Bone”) 1982 Chicago-set novel to an Aussie farm, Ward delivers a visually beautiful and emotionally rewarding study of a dying patriarch and his estranged son. A narrative strand dealing frankly with taboo sexuality places the pic firmly in the arthouse realm, where it should be embraced locally and in selected offshore territories. Pic will be released Down Under on Aug. 6.
Acting infrequently since appearing opposite husband and filmmaking partner Bryan Brown in the TV miniseries “On the Beach” (2000), Blighty-born Ward prepped for her major bow with several fine shorts and the highly regarded 50-minute short feature “Martha’s New Coat” (2003). The strength of these achievements promise a highly successful career for her in longform drama.
Novelist Thornburg’s failed scriptwriter protag is here successful, 40-year-old author Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn). He drags his much younger actress g.f., Toni (Maeve Dermody) — as gauche as she is sexy — to visit his terminally ill father, whom he hasn’t seen in more than 20 years.
Cared for by dutiful daughter Sally (Rachel Griffiths) at the family’s isolated property, failed farmer and unsuccessful political candidate Bruce (Bryan Brown) is physically weak but has not lost his predilection for needling and belittling Ned. In a Tennessee Williams-like atmosphere, the belligerent old man and self-loathing son inch toward confronting the root of their entrenched rancor — specifically, the teenage death of Ned’s twin sister, Kate (Sophie Lowe), and related suicide of his elder brother, Cliff (Josh McFarlane).
Following Sally’s temporary departure and Toni’s stormy exit, the pic adopts parallel storylines. Flashbacks from the viewpoint of young Ned (Scott O’Donnell) show Kate as a sensual, high-spirited girl whose sexual curiosity triggers devastating consequences. Handled boldly and tastefully, Ned’s memories of Kate capture all that is exciting and confusing about adolescence.
Considerable mystery and tension are brought to bear by precise transitions in editing and sound design that intertwine the events leading to the double tragedy with Ned and Bruce’s painful steps toward reconciliation.
Performances are uniformly excellent, with a sassy Dermody and luminous newcomer Lowe standing out among the younger cast. The looks and playing of Mendelsohn and O’Donnell, as the adult and younger Ned, match perfectly across time.
First-time feature d.p. Andrew Commis complements his beautiful widescreen exteriors of lush green fields from days gone by, and the dusty graveyard Bruce’s property has become, with artfully sculpted interior scenes of sunlight stinging across faces in stygian darkness. The outstanding production design by Ian Jobson shapes a place where time and memory have frozen, right down to the chipped cups and saucers. Other technical work is first-class.