Beautiful Kate -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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SYDNEY -- Rachel Ward dares to go where many first-time filmmakers would fear to tread with her feature "Beautiful Kate," a provocative slice of Southern Gothic refried Aussie-style. It's a defiantly anti-commercial outing, with a plot swollen by incest, death, family dysfunction and suicide. But its challenging themes, slow-burn dramatic tension and sensual cinematography have lured a solid domestic audience since its limited early August release and should tempt offshore art house crowds.

Ward, a classy actress who has helmed several well-regarded short films, shapes her writing-directing debut elegantly and handles the controversial subject at its core with finesse. But she doesn't stint on nudity and explicit sex or shy away from occasional coarseness.

In adapting a novel by American author Newton Thornburg, Ward transfers the action from the snowy fringes of Chicago to an arid, rundown farm in the Australian bush.

It is here that 40ish Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn) returns after a 20-year absence to say farewell to his dying father (Ward's real-life husband, Bryan Brown), a cantankerous bully whom Ned holds responsible for the deaths of his beloved twin sister, Kate (Sophie Lowe), and brother, Cliff (Josh McFarlane).

Goaded by his much younger airhead fiancee (Maeve Dermody) and watched from the sidelines by sister Sally (an underused Rachel Griffiths), Ned exhumes the past and resumes hostilities with his estranged father.

Their squabbling grows increasingly rancorous as they work toward the core of the truth, with long-buried secrets and misdeeds revealed in flashback. Scott O'Donnell is totally believable playing a teenaged version of Mendelsohn's character in these skillfully interwoven scenes. We gradually learn more about the seductive, free-spirited beauty of the title and the forbidden intimacies she pursued with her brother one long-ago summer.

First-class performances from Mendelsohn and Brown bring nuance to deliberately off-putting characters, and Tex Perkins' guitar-based score adds layers to the intimate nature of Commis' camerawork.

As Kate, newcomer Lowe beautifully embodies an apparent paradox -- the ethereal tomboy -- marking her, along with Ward, as a talent to watch.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival

Production: New Doll Prods. and New Town Films
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Bryan Brown, Rachel Griffiths, Sophie Lowe, Maeve Dermody
Director-screenwriter: Rachel Ward
Producers: Leah Churchill-Brown, Bryan Brown
Director of photography: Andrew Commis
Production designer: Ian Jobson
Costume designer: Ruth De La Lande
Music: Tex Perkins and Murray Paterson
Editor: Veronika Jenet

No MPAA rating, 90 minutes