Ward and her iconic Australian husband, Bryan Brown, have been a significant part of the Australian film industry for over twenty-five years now. Since the days of The Thorn Birds, which won a boatload of Emmys and Golden Globes, they’ve tried to establish a film festival in Noosa, made a television series, made countless feature and short films, and helped promote the industry world-wide. Brown is the more recognisable of the two as he is regularly called on to play that stereotypical Aussie bloke – Cactus, Dean Spanley and Australia in ’07-’08 – but it is she, Ward, who is beginning to make waves of her own. Her feature debut, Beautiful Kate, opened to wondrous critical reception, saw her receive an Australian Directors’ Guild nomination, garnered 10 Australian Film Institute Award nominations and 3 IF Award nominations. It’s little wonder then that Ward is the name being mentioned a little more these days.
Based upon Newton Thornburg’s novel, Beautiful Kate is a continuing trend in Australian film with foreign novels being relocated to Australian shores. Jindabyne was an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story, So Much Water So Close To Home; $9.99, the stop-motion animated feature film by Tatia Rosenthal was an adaptation of Etgar Keret’s Israeli short stories; and Being Dead by Jim Crace, which is currently stalled in production to be made by Ray Lawrence, are all examples of this burgeoning trend to look for stories that tell tales of humanity rather than specific location and place. Australian filmmakers are looking beyond for inspiration and it would appear Ward found some in this sad tale of a family suffering irreparably from a guilt-laden secret.
Returning home to see his dying father at the request of his sister is Ned, played by Ben Mendelsohn. He arrives to their outback home with his current girlfriend, the much younger Toni, Maeve Dermody, and so falls into place a series of arguments and recollections that will help reveal what has caused this family to all but completely fall apart. Central to the story is the role that Sally, Rachel Griffiths, plays as the youngest member of the family. She’s a worker in an Indigenous community during the day and a basic nurse for her father, Bryan Brown, when she comes home. Ned’s arrival is seen as a means for her to have a break and without imposed guilt she merely says it how it is and leaves Ned to cope with the fact that he and his father have not got on since an unidentified event occurred.
Told through a series of flashbacks brought to view by Ned’s recollections as he attempts to write his next book, we bear witness to the relationships between a younger Ned and Sally and their now absent siblings, Kate (Sophie Lowe) and Cliff (Josh McFarlane), and how the four cope with living in an isolated location. This is not a comfortable film and there are significant moments of confrontation as this family’s disintegration is revealed through a series of violent, both physical and emotional, revelations.
Central to the success of the story not becoming mawkish and obscene are the performances from the whole of the cast. Griffiths and Brown have never been better with Griffiths in particular bringing a real gravitas to her performance that suggests a real understanding of being an observer to a series of horrendous events. Mendelsohn is also exceptionally strong in the lead and the younger performances bring a fresh if not a perfect performance level throughout the film. The other significant factor is Ward’s real ability to get to the core of the matter. She’s far from a showy director and it’s apparent here that there is a real earthiness to her stylistic choices. Using the skills of cinematographer Andrew Commis and a spare and quite beautiful score by Gregory ‘Tex’ Perkins she creates a real sense of the dislocated.
What amounts is a troubled world full of pain and grief. This is a tough film and a film not without its punches. Ward doesn’t pull any of them either and for some that might be a little too much to lay witness, however, it does signify another talent worth keeping an eye on, for Beautiful Kate is one of the stronger Australian films in a year that produced a dozen good-to-great ones.