'Palm Beach': Film Review

Palm Beach
Secrets and Acais.

Rachel Ward directs Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Richard E. Grant and Greta Scacchi in a soufflé about navigating marriage and friendships in middle age.

Ten years have elapsed since actor-turned-director Rachel Ward debuted her first feature, Beautiful Kate, with Bryan Brown, the filmmaker’s husband, as a crotchety patriarch stewing over long-buried secrets. That’s more or less who he plays in her latest, Palm Beach, though the tone couldn’t be more different.

A well-acted melodrama with glittering beachside locations and a fruit-basket palette, Ward’s sophomore effort (after several TV gigs in between) reunites Brown with BFF Sam Neill, plus Richard E. Grant and Greta Scacchi in a frothy valentine to enduring friendship. That cast may well help Universal lure the Grey Pound out in force when the film is released locally in August, off the back of its opening night slot at the Sydney Film Festival.

Destination NSW — a tourism body run by the government — co-financed the film, and the opening credits unfurl as literal picture postcards, with Bonnie Elliott’s camera soaring over Sydney’s harbor toward the titular suburb, a wealthy enclave at the city’s northern tip. Frank (Brown) has invited his old bandmates (Neill and Grant) and their spouses (Jacqueline McKenzie and Heather Mitchell) to celebrate his birthday at the waterfront aerie he shares with wife Charlotte (Scacchi).

Joining the couple are their kids, doctor Ella (Ward and Brown’s own daughter Matilda) and university dropout Dan (Charlie Vickers), as well as Holly (Claire van der Boom), Frank’s adult daughter from a previous relationship. She’s brought along her latest "root," as Dad charmingly puts it — a farmer (Aaron Jeffery) who eschews champagne for the beer he’s brought himself.

The director and her co-writer, Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, throw them all together without stopping to clarify who’s who or parcel out backstories, which emerge in unhurried fashion. Frank has just sold the clothing label that made his fortune, and his wealth is a source of resentment for louche soak Billy (Grant, naturally), who is embarrassed by the jingles he now churns out for commercials.

More destructive by far is the dissatisfaction felt by veteran journalist Leo (Neill), spurred by a cancer scare that has made him determined to disinter old questions about Dan’s paternity. Most of the characters in Palm Beach are nursing a secret, in fact, and the film’s soap-opera qualities are underlined by the fact it’s often housebound.

What makes the whole thing work is Ward’s facility with performers, and the wrinkles that are threaded into plot points we’ve seen a million times before. The infidelity of Scacchi’s character is no dark secret waiting to be cracked open, but rather something the characters dealt with decades ago; what’s at stake now is the affair’s issue.

There are plenty of gags — a running joke has Billy needle Frank about a chimney built by the neighbors, obscuring the perfect view, and an amusing subplot sees Mitchell’s 60-year-old actress affronted by an offer to play Nicole Kidman’s mother. (Adding insult to injury, she’ll have to fight for it.) But the actors never succumb to shtick, just about avoiding the self-indulgence one expects from a film made by pals in paradise.

Frank’s relationship with his son Dan is the staging point for all his insecurities, and his condescension drives the boy toward Leo. The 20-something is introduced cackling at a video on his phone while his old man attempts to repair the motorboat he broke, and at first he appears to be yet another millennial caricature — an impression reinforced when he confides he’s working on an app with his mates in lieu of study. But Vickers brings out the sweetness in him, too. The spark Dan shares with Leo’s stepdaughter Caitlyn (Frances Berry) seems to portend romance, but instead culminates in a well-staged action sequence that snaps the characters out of their solipsism and disaffection.

Each actor gets their moment in the sun, even though some, like Jeffery’s cowboy-hat wearing farmer and Mitchell’s still-glamorous actress, undergo crises only tenuously connected to the lives of the other characters. Editor Nick Meyers does an admirable job stitching them all together, aided by the expansive, multilevel central location that production designer Melinda Doring kits out in a range of Balinese wicker and palm fronds. Excursions outside take the form of boat rides downriver that showcase more idyllic northern beaches locales, backed by a rollicking soundtrack featuring the likes of Otis Redding and Oz rockers The Easybeats. But the chief drawcard here is the conga line of old pros at the helm.

Production companies: New Town Films, Soapbox Industries

Cast: Bryan Brown, Greta Scacchi, Richard E. Grant, Sam Neill, Heather Mitchell, Aaron Jeffery, Jacqueline McKenzie, Charlie Vickers, Frances Berry, Claire van der Boom, Matilda Brown, Felix Williamson

Director: Rachel Ward

Screenwriters: Joanna Murray-Smith, Rachel Ward

Producers: Deborah Balderstone, Bryan Brown

Cinematographer: Bonnie Elliott

Production designer: Melinda Doring

Costume designer: Joanna Mae Park

Editor: Nick Meyers

Music: The Teskey Brothers

Casting: Kirsty McGregor

Venue: Sydney Film Festival

98 minutes