Beautiful Kate Review
Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), a writer aged forty, and his twentysomething actress girlfriend Toni (Maeve Dermody) travel to the family home in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Ned's widower father Bruce (Bryan Brown) is dying of congestive heart failure and is being looked after by Ned's younger sister Sally (Rachel Griffiths). It's been a long time since Ned has been here, and he's been at loggerheads with the domineering Bruce, blaming him for the suicide, twenty years earlier, of Ned's brother Cliff (Josh McFarlane). As Sally leaves Ned to look after Bruce while she takes a break, as Toni becomes restless, as Ned tries to write, he is troubled by memories of his other sister, Kate (played in flashbacks by Sophie Lowe), also now dead...
Beautiful Kate is based on a novel by Newton Thornburg, which I haven't read. Writer-director Rachel Ward has transplanted the story to Australia. As the film progresses – with many soft-focussed flashbacks, often in subjective camera from Ned's viewpoint – it picks away at the reasons why this family became so dysfunctional. Secrets are uncovered, and so is guilt. (Scott O'Donnell plays the younger Ned.) At the centre of it is Kate, the beautiful, flighty Kate of the title. At the end we have a fuller picture, and it's not a pretty one.
Rachel Ward was a film star for a while in the early to mid 1980s, having her big break opposite Burt Reynolds in Sharky's Machine, and with leads in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and Against All Odds. On TV she starred in The Thorn Birds, where she met her husband Bryan Brown and settled in Australia with him. As is the way with many actresses, film parts dried up past the age of forty, and further acting roles have been on television. Around the turn of the millennium she began to direct, at first short films and some television works. Beautiful Kate is her first feature, and it's an impressive debut, showing a command of narrative and mood, of regret for the past and an acceptance of one's own failings, that is immediately compelling. Some of the film may be confronting to some viewers, especially as Ward has an unsentimental frankness that places the film at the strong end of a 15 certificate. Camerawork (Andrew Commis, a first-time feature DP), production design (Ian Jobson) are first-rate, and Veronika Jenet's editing is precise.
It's no surprise that an actor should be able to get the best out of other actors. Ben Mendelsohn nails the character of Ned from the outset. He's not unsuccessful as a writer, but there is an edge of self-loathing, for reasons we later discover. Toni often bears the brunt of this, beautiful but not as shallow as he thinks, up until the point where she learns something about her boyfriend that she finds unpalatable. Maeve Dermody is pitch-perfect in the role. Bryan Brown (who also co-produced the film) is fine as an alpha male brought low by his illness, trying to come to terms with how his family has turned out, a family he largely brought up himself after his wife died. Sophie Lowe gives a lot of vitality to a character who is alluring and messed up at the same time. Finally, Rachel Griffiths is self-effacing as the plain youngest sister who saw more than other people reckoned and is, as Ned says, maybe the family's one real success.
I do have some reservations: the character of Cliff is underwritten and the mystery is a little too easy to guess. Also, considering that Bruce is given to references about “the blacks”, who are presumably a part of the community where he lives, it's strange that we never see any of them until the very end of the film. But, these nitpicks aside, Beautiful Kate is a fine film that many would not have caught on its limited UK cinema release. It was nominated for nine Australian Film Institute Awards – with all five principals up for acting nods, best writer and director for Ward, best cinematography and best film – but won none of them. (The big winner in 2009 was Samson & Delilah.)
Beautiful Kate is released by Matchbox Films on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1, anamorphically enhanced. Beautiful Kate was shot in 35mm in Super 35, and that is the intended ratio. It's a good-looking transfer, sharp when it needs to be – less so, but intentionally less so, in the flashback scenes. The film is quite darkly lit in places, but shadow detail is fine.
There are two soundtrack options, analogue Dolby Surround (2.0) which is the default and Dolby Digital 5.1. Much of the film is dialogue-driven, but the surrounds are used for ambient noises, such as birdsong and the buzzing of flies. They are also used for some music tracks, some of which lead into flashbacks. Unfortunately there are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.
The extras begin with the theatrical trailer (2.15), which is anamorphic in a ratio of 1.78:1. Next up is an introduction (2:49) Ward and Brown filmed (in Sydney, with the harbour and its celebrated bridge bahind them) for Beautiful Kate's British premiere at the London Australian Film Featival. Shot on video (with plenty of moiré patterning), it's a little too intentionally shambolic, but the chemistry between Brown and Ward is obvious to see.
The main extra is a set of EPK interviews, with a short introduction. There is a Play All option and these run 40:59 in total. In order, we hear from Sophie Lowe, Scott O'Donnell, Ben Mendelsohn, Maeve Dermody, Rachel Griffiths, Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward, producer Leah Churchill-Brown and Andrew Commis. The interviews follow the usual pattern of a text question on screen followed by the video of the answer.
By way of contrast, there is a Region 4 two-disc release which has an entirely different set of extras: a commentary (Ward, Churchill-Brown and Commis), deleted scenes with an optional Rachel Ward commentary, a storyboard-to-screen feature and on a second disc, two earlier short films by Ward, the 24-minute The Big House and the 52-minute Martha's New Coat. This release has identical audiovisual specs to the UK release but it does have hard-of-hearing subtitles..