Although it presents itself as a bastion of haunting thoughtfulness and a target of controversy, Beautiful Kate offers nothing more than familiar themes seen in plenty of Australian films before it.
Beautiful Kate is based on Newton Thornburg’s novel of the same name. Where Thornburg is an American, and the books setting an Idaho farm, this film adaptation is a strictly Australian affair. Yet despite its change of location, Beautiful Kate is far from innovative: films dealing with family dysfunction brought on by tragedy are an Australian speciality, now worn out and lifeless.
Ben Mendelsohn stars as Ned, a successful novelist who returns to his Walunbi family farm, to visit his dying father Bruce (Bryan Brown) at the urging of his dutiful sister, Sally (Rachel Griffiths).
Once in Walunbi, Beautiful Kate becomes a film of parallel stories, the first exploring Ned’s relationship with his late twin sister Kate (Sophie Lowe); and the second focusing on the repercussions of their acts 20 years later, with Ned’s return home opening old wounds.
Beautiful Kate marks the feature film debut of writer/director, Rachel Ward. To her credit, Ward does have a good handle as a visualist, using the talents of cinematographer Andrew Commis to capture the open landscapes of the films outback setting, another Australian specialty.
Yet although dealing with such raw, dark materials, Ward’s Beautiful Kate comes off as depressingly flat and emotionally detached. Surely, there has to be some stirring of the soul upon its completion?
The performances reflect this. Mendelsohn does not succeed in his transition from unsympathetic womanizer to redeemed sinner; Rachel Griffiths is wasted as the obedient younger sister; and Bryan Brown relies on his stock and trade of cranky in order to be effective.
Balancing the scales are fine performances by Maeve Dermody, who steals the film as Ned’s young, ditzy fiancé; and Sophie Lowe, who impresses in her portrayal as a clearly psychologically disturbed young woman.
With Beautiful Kate it is clear that Ward wants her audience to squirm in their seats, by not shying away from sexual taboos while keeping the flesh rate high.
This brings us to a scene featuring incestuous sex. Evoking the photography of Bill Henson – whose works featuring nude child models caused controversy in Australia – Ward has turned a tragic moment in the life of these characters into a shallow and synthetic sequence, used to generate scandal among the public, and is morbidly lacking in a moral tone, akin to a overly sexualised rape scene.
The popular consensus is that Thornburg’s novel is a memorable and sensitive exploration of a family torn apart by tragedy. If that is the case, then Beautiful Kate is a story more suited to the page than the screen.