Film Comment: Rachel Ward’s debut Beautiful Kate is an interesting, if unsatisfying, family drama

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Actors don’t always make great directors when they transfer their talents from in front of the camera to behind it, but British actress Rachel Ward manages the transition rather well. Beautiful Kate, adapted from a novel by Newton Thornberg, observes the relationship between a father and his estranged son. It flashes back to when the son, Ned, was a teenager, and had a less-than-normal relationship with his good-looking sister Kate.

We are given snippets of details of the siblings’ relationships in fractured flashbacks. In the present, Ned (Ben Mendelsohn) is a 40-year-old writer with a dim girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) and lots of guilt and anger. He doesn’t get on with his dying father (Bryan Brown), who sill blames him for his past sins and the death of Kate.

Although the original novel was set in America, the film moves the drama to the wide wastelands of Australia. It’s a bold decision, but the beguiling cinematography makes it worth it.

There are things that don’t work as well. The relationships aren’t as convincingly played out as they could have been. Ward’s screenplay has a lot to say, but doesn’t seem entirely sure what the focus of the film should be.

The performances are excellent, particularly Sophie Lowe, recently seen in BBC Four’s drama series The Slap, as Kate in the flashback scenes. Rachel Griffiths, as her surviving sister, also gives a nicely non-showy turn.

This is an interesting feature debut, and makes good use of widescreen photography, but it has a strangely unsatisfying feel to it. Some may revel in the mysterious feel the film exudes, and enjoy the shots of Australia enough for it not to be a complete waste of time, but others may be frustrated by its slow, meandering nature. It’s worth a watch, but I doubt it will become an indie-classic.

Beautiful Kate (2009), directed by Rachel Wood, is distributed on DVD in the UK by Matchbox Films, Certificate 15. 

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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

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