In “Palm Beach,” a Murderer’s Row of vintage yet durably sparkling Australian acting talent, combined with recent Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant, makes for a bright and eventful weekend in the sun at the eponymous northern Sydney enclave. The second feature-length directorial credit from actress-turned-director Rachel Ward following the resonant and well-received 2009 drama “Beautiful Kate,” this breezy yet sturdy dramatic comedy is aimed squarely at a mature demographic that will join the party both Down Under — where the film kicked off the Sydney Film Festival ahead of its Aug. 8 domestic rollout — and abroad, where older audiences are also sure to stargaze.
On the occasion of his 73rd birthday, long-marrieds Frank (Bryan Brown) and Charlotte (Greta Scacchi) are entertaining family and friends at their spectacularly airy, low-slung home perched above the stunning natural beauty of the ritzy Sydney peninsula Palm Beach. Joining them are longtime couples Leo (Sam Neill) and Bridget (Jacqueline McKenzie), as well as Billy (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” scene-stealer Grant) and Eva (Heather Mitchell). The men of the group are old friends, representing three-quarters of the Pacific Sideburns, a fictional band that peaked in 1977 with the modest hit “Fearless” (a song written for the film by James Reyne, former frontman for Australian Crawl, which was popular locally from the early 1980s and whose biggest hit was a not-dissimilar song called “Reckless”).
A bash like this wouldn’t be complete without grown kids, and as with any such soirée, there’s a clutch here, the most prominent and pivotal of which are Frank and Charlotte’s two, aimless son Dan (Charlie Vickers) and new doc Ella (Matilda Brown, real-life daughter of Ward and Brown, who met on the set of the 1983 miniseries “The Thorn Birds” and married shortly thereafter).
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Once litres of champagne and a groaning platter of fat prawns are produced, the revelry gets underway, resulting in a comfortable, no-holds-barred vibe. Thanks to a relaxed yet nuanced script from playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and Ward that manages to provide showcase character moments for all, this isn’t the kind of movie in which the talent is encouraged to act like they’ve had too much to drink, but rather, the sort where alcohol is a narrative pretext, first for the sheer pleasure of the Australian way of life among the privileged, then for the gradual crumbling of whatever inhibitions remain after three decades of friendship and marriage. The cast is clearly what sells the experience, but it all goes down easy through the combined efforts of Ward’s perceptive direction, the nuanced editing of vet Nick Meyers, and Bonnie Elliott’s warm, crystalline camerawork. Melinda Doring’s meticulous, crowded-but-not-cluttered production design settles everyone right in.
As it transpires, Frank is at often comical loose ends after selling his successful Swagger Gear sportswear company, journalist Leo endured a health scare, ad man Billy upsets his former bandmates by clandestinely using “Fearless” in a French TV spot for Pottie Pride adult undergarments, actress Eva struggles over whether to accept the offer of a part playing a grandmother, and so on. Yet the issue that gets the dramatic ball rolling is a serious matter of ancestry, and the eventual answer following a boating mishap will pull these friendships in directions they’ve never dared go.
If the film often plays like a gaggle of old friends hanging out to a soundtrack of oldies (and the good-time score of Melbourne-based band the Teskey Brothers, currently touring the States), that’s because the leads and creatives have known each other for decades: Brown and Neill are friends off-camera and have made at least five films together (the most recent being director Warwick Thornton’s 2017 dramatic Meat pie Western “Sweet Country”), while Ward and Grant played husband and wife 30 years ago in writer-director Bruce Robinson’s “How to Get Ahead in Advertising,” his follow-up to Grant’s now cult debut, “Withnail and I.” This isn’t so much a movie as a Venn diagram of working talent, cashing in their chips to have a good time together creating accessible entertainment. It’s such a laid-back production the main cast list appears in alphabetical order.
As it happens, the whole thing was Brown’s idea, influenced by dear friends in crisis on a holiday but shot through with the practicalities of life: “Paradise doesn’t exist, life exists,” claims the roughhewn yet whip-smart actor in the otherwise upbeat press kit, “Doesn’t matter where you are.” This approach keeps “Palm Beach” plausibly grounded, barely. Yet to be fair, if you have to be somewhere and that somewhere can be the lap of luxury, you could do a lot worse than a place, and a state of mind, like “Palm Beach.”