'Celeste': Film Review | Melbourne 2018

Courtesy of Melbourne International Film Festival
Radha Mitchell in 'Celeste.'
Opera-diva drama hits some appealing notes.

Radha Mitchell plays the eponymous heroine of Australian writer-director Ben Hackworth's sophomore feature.

A welcome if intermittent presence in American films over the past decade and a half, Australian actress Radha Mitchell now returns home for a dream role as the eponymous heroine of languid mood piece Celeste. Premiering in Melbourne, the film sees writer-director Ben Hackworth belatedly following up his 2007 debut, Corroboree, with a fitfully engaging work that loses its way somewhat amid a welter of melodramatic flashbacks. Exuding a brittle wistfulness as a retired opera star planning one last comeback, Mitchell's fortysomething Celeste nevertheless manages to combine elements of Norma Desmond and Blanche DuBois to absorbing effect.

Co-starring Down Under hunk du jour Thomas Cocquerel as her brooding, hot-headed stepson, the picture works as an evocative immersion into some unusual Queensland locations. Aimed squarely at older female audiences, the picture will do the rounds of Antipodean arthouses and could find some favor among overseas programmers seeking quietly classy but essentially undemanding fare.

Perhaps best known for her demanding, impressive dual-lead performance in Woody Allen's Melinda & Melinda back in 2004, Mitchell has also bestowed a touch of Antipodean class to such diverse productions as Silent Hill, Man on Fire, Finding NeverlandOlympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen. Here she is very much the queen bee at the center of attention in Hackworth's script, co-written with prominent Australian stage star Bille Brown.

The fact that the film now appears some five years after Brown's 2013 death indicates the protracted gestation of the project, formerly known as Ruins of Love — the earlier title a nod to the decayed neogothic splendor of real-life location Paronella Park, where the bulk of the action unfolds. Built in the 1930s in the style of Spanish castles, Paronella has long since fallen into picturesque dilapidation. Here the grounds play a crucial role as a suitably langourous, theatrical and artificial backdrop for sometime leading lady Celeste's return to the operatic fray at an outdoor concert.

The practical logistics of this event are clearly not a major concern of the film, which shows very little of Celeste's rehearsal or preparations. The focus is much more on her tricky relationship with Cocquerel's Jack, who was brought up in the residence but departed after the mysterious death of his father, Celeste's lover. The circumstances of this tragedy cast a heavy shadow over present-day events, but are left deliberately enigmatic: One of the many (too many) flashbacks suggest that the father drowned after confronting Jack with suspicions that he and his stepmother had crossed a certain boundary of intimacy and decency.

There's a frustrating vagueness to the integration of past and present that may prove too much for some viewers. Thanks to the contributions of Mitchell and production designer Ross Wallace, however, Celeste is easy to absorb and appreciate on a scene-by-scene level. The interiors and exteriors of the jungle-encroached park, as captured by Katie Milwright's cinematography, are a feast for the senses, harking back to the Werner Herzog of Fitzcarraldo days. This is an area abundantly fecund in both flora and fauna — to the extent that a "Crocodile Consultant" is mentioned in the closing credits.

As an old-fashioned star vehicle for Mitchell, Celeste passes muster, with few of her (human) co-stars making much impact in her slender but imposing shadow: Odessa Young works hard for diminishing returns in a breathily mannered role as the shop assistant that becomes Jack's quasigirlfriend. And even if Cocquerel — who from some angles resembles Sam Worthington, at others a young Ben Mendelsohn — may not be quite yet the finished article actingwise, there's no denying his potent presence as a virile slab of wayward young manhood. Also currently seen as Errol Flynn in Oz biopic In Like Flynn, he may yet emulate Mitchell by catching the eye of American casting directors.

Production company: Unicorn Films
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Thomas Cocquerel, Nadine Garner, Odessa Young, Emm Wiseman
Director: Ben Hackworth
Screenwriters: Bille Brown, Ben Hackworth
Producers: Lizzette Atkins, Raphael Cocks
Executive producer: Shaun Miller
Cinematographer: Katie Milwright
Production designer: Ross Wallace
Costume designer: Erin Roche
Editor: Peter Carrodus
Composers: Jackson Milas, Antony Partos
Casting director: Peter Rasmussen
Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival
Sales: Unicorn Films, Melbourne
In English
No Rating, 105 minutes