A lonely and troubled 15-year-old sets off on a frustrating quest to find the father who abandoned her years earlier in “Martha’s New Coat,” an accomplished medium-length film in which actress-turned-director Rachel Ward enters Ken Loach territory with considerable success. Primarily intended for TV, and part of an Australian Film Commission initiative to encourage the production of several 50-minute dramatic films from emerging talents, pic is good enough to find festival bookings and to enjoy a long and healthy ancillary life.
Ward, who brought a luminous presence to films like “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), “Against All Odds” (1984) and “After Dark My Sweet” (1990), recently appeared with husband Bryan Brown in the TV miniseries of “On the Beach” after a long absence from the small screen. The couple’s daughter, Matilda Brown, plays the title role in “Martha,” and creates a wholly believable character, that of an unhappy, moody teenager who yearns for the kind of family life that will always elude her. Brown seems set for a successful acting career on the strength of this intelligent performance.
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Martha lives in a small town with her sluttish mother, Sarah (Lisa Hensley), who is pregnant by her new lover, Frank (Daniel Wyllie), and her little sister, Elsie (Alycia Debnam. A pale beauty with jet black hair and an eyebrow ring, Martha is a surly loner who rejects the attentions of boys. The town is devoid of entertainment for young people.
Still, Martha’s looking forward to her birthday treat — a trip to the seaside. But on the morning in question, Sarah is too hungover and drugged with pills to travel, so Martha makes a snap decision to steal some of Frank’s money and take Elsie with her on the bus to the beach. She then decides to go in search of her father, not realizing he has a new life and will not bekeen to see her.
The screenplay, by Elizabeth J. Mars, captures the attitudes, speech patterns and concerns of contempo youth; the film has no hint of artifice. The bleak story is leavened with humor, however, and Ward concludes the too-brief drama with an unspoken scene of great sensitivity that allows a measure of hope for the future.
Country and Western songs (Martha’s favorite) fill the soundtrack of a film handsomely but economically shot on location by Cordelia Beresford; camerawork is hand held, but not annoyingly so.
Debnam-Carey is an appealing child actor who inhabits her role with complete conviction, but the success of the film rests on the remarkable Brown’s young shoulders. Her mother’s direction (which follows her success with last year’s award-winning short film, “The Big House”) is intelligent and assured. Title refers to a birthday present given to the eponymous heroine by members of her peer group.