Incest and redemption

Beautiful Kate (MA). Running time: 90 minutes. Director: Rachel Ward. Starring: Rachel Griffiths, Bryan Brown, Ben Mendelsohn, Sophie Lowe, Maeve Dermody

Beautiful KateThe 'tastefully nude' young woman is surrounded by cloudy blackness. These shadows evoke at once a sense of mystery and of menace as they gnarl around her milky form. Is she emerging from that darkness, or receding into it? Is she the predator or the prey? Do youth and beauty personify strength or vulnerability?

The publicity poster for Beautiful Kate is as ambiguous as the controversial Bill Henson photographs it so blatantly references. The film unpacks these ambiguities, not solving but exacerbating them and making them sing with empathy for the angst of family trauma, the pain of growing up, and the ripping, gripping claws of unresolved guilt.

Rachel Ward has written and directed a sensitive film, adapted from Newton Thornburg's eponymous novel, that makes an accessible and compelling story out of a scenario that might otherwise evoke moral indignation if not revulsion — namely, sibling incest.

Incest is but one of a cluster of dark secrets that have swollen and festered between 30-something writer Ned (Mendelsohn) and his father (Brown). When Ned returns to the rural Australian family homestead after a 20-year estrangement, these familial boils must be located and lanced if there's to be a chance of redemption for either Ned or the ailing patriarch.

When Ned arrives at the house with his nubile and flaky young lover (Dermody), he is initially reluctant to address the old wounds. But returning to the site of past traumas must necessarily awaken dormant memories. Dreamlike flashback sequences mete out the pertinent aspects of Ned's troubled back story.

We learn that there was an inappropriateness to Ned's relationship with his twin sister Kate. The extent of this aspect of their relationship — the part it played in Kate's death at a young age and Ned's subsequent escape from the family home — is revealed gradually and graphically. The simultaneous menace and mystery of youth and beauty comes into play. But there is also a sweet innocence to the scenes, so that while they are shocking, they are not sleazy.

Kate (Lowe), lively, lithe and passionate, remains an elusive figure. Many of her scenes are filmed from Ned's point of view, and our understanding of her is limited by his limited perspective. It is unclear what motivated her to pursue such a relationship with her brother, although social isolation, the absence of their mother, the emotional distance of their father, the closeness of twins and the hormonal turbulence of adolescence are contributing factors.

Among the universally strong performances (particularly Mendelsohn as the emotional gelding Ben, and Brown as the rage and sickness-riddled father), Griffiths is a standout. She brings an understated strength and dignity to her portrayal of Ned's surviving sister Sally, who alone of the siblings has remained as a companion and, lately, nurse to their father.

Compassionate and thoughtful, Sally also understands Ned, more than he realises. She epitomises the film's theme of forgiveness (of self, of others), and plays a key role during a final act where the concealment of truth proves to be a most profound act of mercy.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Rachel Griffiths, Bryan Brown, Ben Mendelsohn, Newton Thornburg, Rachel Ward, Beautiful Kate



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Existing comments

The great sensitivity of this review (compared with the equally intelligent and well balanced one I have just read in another Catholic online publication) reminds me of what I love about Eureka Street.
It's Christianity for grownups.
Thank you.

margaret | 06 August 2009  

I prefer the interview in 'The Age' where at least the word transgression was used and Ward was questioned about the use of romantic music to enhance the 'sex scenes'. I wonder how the victims of incest will react, I'd like to hear from them before we pronounce the virtues of a movie that for some people will open up old wounds.

Marie | 06 August 2009  

As a 11 year old orphanage boy, I was sent to a foster home for some holidays. The Catholic husband and wife had two children. The children I got along with, the parents were odd. The older child, a girl my age, had (so I later came to know) an abortion when she was 12 years old. I stayed with the foster family, on and off, for another ten or so years - mainly after I had left the orphanage. The Eureka Street reviewer, sensitive as he sets out to be, simply has not idea about the seriousness of incest. That's moral seriousness and the dirty. live impact on individuals. Incest is a long-standing taboo for very good reasons. Don't glamorize or condone any insipid attempt to articise it. It isn't decent ... and, dare one say, it isn't truly Catholic, either.

Rodney Stinson | 07 August 2009  

I haven't seen the film yet but intend to. Whilst I sympathise with Rodney's viewpoint I don't think anyone is condoning or glamorising the subject matter. An Anglican Bishop in NZ once said that films are modern day sermons. With this in mind I would hope that this film could shed light on this sorry subject for both predator and prey - and once light - then the necessity for help. Surely by keeping it taboo neither light nor help can be shed and shown.

Janet Marsh | 09 August 2009  

In childhood I was subjected to intergenerational incest. I was deeply moved by Beautiful Kate. It says much about the vast isolation of life in rural Australia, the struggle for children growing in a world devoid of healthy adult sexuality, the ways in which adolescents can flounder when their mother, or indeed father, is missing from their lives – be it through death, emotional distance or physical separation.

From the opening frames I was transported to solitary farms where we stayed with friends when my children were young. The darkness of the night and seeming silence broken by a wind mill, insects, wildlife or a breeze; where city sounds of beeping car locks seem incongruous.

The cast of Beautiful Kate were sublime, the music brilliantly evocative without being intrusive and the production design inspired. When a film brings a measure of deliverance for characters I have come to care for in less than two hours kudos to Rachel Ward is due.

On a disability pension, I have little discretionary income for entertainment, when I do I want a film as thought provoking, radiant, confronting, ambiguous, intelligent and beautiful as Beautiful Kate. It’s gratifying it comes from our own backyard.

Helen | 17 December 2009  

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