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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Beautiful Kate

How many more Australian films about families with dark secrets do we need? Usually the answer would be "none", but in Beautiful Kate's case there's a reasonable case for an exception. For one thing, first time feature writer / director Rachel Ward has put together a compelling collection of characters in her adaptation of the 1980's novel by Newton Thornberg. Shifting the location from a farm on the outskirts of Chicago to the fringes of the outback, she also takes full opportunity of the magnificent scenery (and the unsightly junk people have dumped there) to create a truly evocative backdrop for, well, a family with a dark secret in its past.

When Ned (Ben Mendelsohn) returns home to the family farm with a girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) half his age, the real surprise is that he's come back at all. His father (Bryan Brown, who also produces) might be dying but there's been no love lost between the pair since he left his family behind after the deaths of his brother and his twin sister Kate (Sophie Lowe). So while the surviving sister (Rachel Griffiths) looks after their still bitter father, the tensions between father and son rapidly return to their former intensity - even as returning home stirs up memories of the siblings coming-of-age, and how it all went tragically wrong.

With great performances all around (especially from newcomer Lowe) and a story that constantly moves forward this gets pretty much everything right... apart from the dark secret at the heart of the family. This particular secret is rapidly becoming a cliche in Australian film and, while plausible here, remains both jarring and a revelation that doesn't sit well with the rest of the film. There's no denying that Beautiful Kate is a class act all around, a well-crafted and visually stunning drama - but how many films about families with dark secrets does one country need?

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

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