Eye For Film >> Movies >> Beautiful Kate (2009) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Bruce (Bryan Brown) is dying. His daughter Sally (Rachel Griffiths) does her best for him, but with coronary heart disease and a disinclination to take his medication, he doesn't have long. So he sends for his estranged son Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), who travels halfway across the continent to see him. He's a dissolute 40-year-old writer with a good looking but insufferable girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) whom he doesn't really seem to like, and one hell of a grudge against his old man.
Where does this grudge come from? At first it seems straightforward. Bruce isn't the gentlest of people; there are hints that he was violent when Ned was a kid, and he's certainly aggressive and insulting now. Still, the bored and resentful girlfriend, Toni, gradually uncovers a warmer side to him. It also emerges that Ned was once one of four - a brother and a sister died when they were young (their mother having died some years before). "She's beautiful," says Toni, picking up a portrait of the deceased Kate. But as she comes to suspect that Kate's beauty meant more to Ned than might have been considered healthy, a darker side to the story emerges.
As a portrait of a dysfunctional family, Beautiful Kate seems on the surface to be fairly routine. Its revelations are carefully signposted beforehand, but that's because the twists themselves are misleading - what matters is the deeper layer of narrative and how it plays with our expectations. Because Ned is initially offered to us as a hero, we can easily see Bruce as the enemy and Toni as a nuisance, until Ned's increasingly unpleasant behaviour forces us to shift allegiance. Is Ned the bad guy, then? Are the dark secrets which have damaged this family his own? Again, nothing is that simple. Beautiful Kate challenges familiar narratives of incest and abuse, presenting a far more subtle portrait of the disintegration of a group of people in a quietly desperate situation. It will also surprise viewers with a final uplifting note.
Played out in stark isolation against the barren beauty of the outback, this suffers at times from being too stagey, though it's beautifully played by all involved. As the dead girl on whom the story hinges, Sophie Lowe turns in a haunting performance reminiscent of a Badlands-era Sissy Spacek, seductive and yet clearly just a child. There are some clumsy storytelling devices, particularly the use of Ned's journal, and there are too many flashbacks, but the scruffy, lived-in feel of the sets contributes a realism that helps to keep us focused. It's a disturbing film, stubbornly difficult - not every viewer will engage with it, but those who do will find it unusually affecting.Reviewed on: 20 Jul 2010