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Beautiful Kate is Rachel Ward’s debut feature, a story of family dysfunction, guilt, salvation – and sexual provocation, all elements that drew her to tell the story, transplanted from its American setting to the Australian outback, complemented with rough hews Australian charm – and a damn fine cast. Just prior to its Australian release (August 6, 2009) the film was invited to screen at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival (September, 2009). What makes it special? Andrew L. Urban talks to Rachel Ward, Bryan Brown and producer Leah Churchill-Brown.

At a special preview screening hosted by your reporter at Sydney’s Cremorne Orpheum, Rachel Ward spoke of her interest in returning to the kind of romantic Australian movies that Peter Weir and Jane Campion gave us; “I was keen to avoid making an urban gritty drama like so many current Australian films.

“Growing up in the 70s,” she says, “the movies that transported me were the epic romances on a grand scale. Far From The Madding Crowd, Ryan’s Daughter, Dr Zhivago, Butch Cassidy. Of course we have all come of age since then, audiences are more cynical and demanding than we were in the 70s but, given original obstacles to thwart our lovers (not easy in our permissive world) and given contemporary moral quandaries, there is no doubt that audiences still want to be romanced and still want to be transported to exotic locales with beautiful, alluring characters. Hopefully, Beautiful Kate delivers on all these counts.

"a provocative, sensual and ultimately moving human drama"

“So what do I mean by being ‘romanced’? I’m not so much talking about romantic plot lines, I mean romanced in the way that filmmakers like Jane Campion or Peter Weir deliver romance. Their films, particularly, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, The Piano and An Angel at My Table transport you to breathtakingly beautiful worlds, worlds filled with poetic images and a particular rough hewn Australian charm, (glaringly absent in so many Australian movies of late) These film-makers know how to do a certain Antipodean romance and beauty and audience’s around the world respond to that. With Beautiful Kate I attempt to make not only a provocative, sensual and ultimately moving human drama but one that exploits the mythical interior of Australia.”

Based on the novel by American author Newton Thornburg, Beautiful Kate was set in 1970 Idaho, USA, with much of the novel seen through flashbacks set in the 60s. Rachel Ward updated and moved the novel to Australia, set it in the modern day with flashbacks to the 80s. When writing the screenplay Rachel envisioned Australia as the setting for this story “one of the themes is going through puberty in isolation and what better place than the Australian outback, to explore that theme?”

Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to his family home in the bush after 20 years to see his estranged father, Bruce (Bryan Brown) who is dying. He brings his newest girlfriend, sexy, headstrong young wannabe actress Toni (Maeve Darmody), who knows nothing about the family, but soon finds Ned had a twin sister, Kate (Sophie Lowe) and an older brother, Cliff (Josh McFarlane). His sister Sally (Rachel Griffiths) has been nursing Bruce, and there is more to the estrangement than meets the eye. Bruce was never a softie dad but Ned blames his father for worse things than being tough. He also carries a huge burden of guilt, and all the family demons are somehow linked to the beautiful young Kate who is no longer there.

“Beautiful Kate is unabashedly sensual,” Rachel says. “Like Rain, In My Father’s Den, Somewhere in Africa, Under the Skin and My Summer of Love, it is a story where the young female characters are yearning to find and express their sexual identities. My aesthetic for the flashback narrative is inspired by Bill Henson’s work. Like Beautiful Kate he inhabits a world of teenage alienation and sexuality. A world lit by pole lights, car headlights or torches. I like the way he reveals only small poetic fragments, fragments of alabaster skin, of silhouetted breasts, of bruised lips, the glint of a tear. He too treads that fine line between beauty/ romance and desolation/ realism.

"sexually provocative"

“There are a number of fairly explicit sexual scenes throughout. While I do not intend to enter Larry Clarke territory, I hope not be prudish. This film is sexually provocative.”

When prodded about the film being labelled a movie about incest, producer Leah Churhchill-Brown says she never saw it as that. “It’s about relationships in the family … the characters.” Perhaps her most demanding and constant role was to act as mediator in the creative crossfire between Rachel and Bryan; “there was a lot of shouting and spitting,” as Bryan said mischievously at the preview.

That’s the price for making a film into a family affair. Not only did Rachel manage to convince a reluctant Bryan (her husband and one of the film’s producers) to take the role of the father, Bruce, but amongst the crew were also their two daughters Rosie, assistant to Bryan and Leah, and Matilda who created the EPK and B Roll as well as their nephew Will who worked in the art department.

Bryan was initially sceptical, “I was nervous about it, because it’s enough to think about playing the character and get the movie produced to think about ‘oh are my kids okay’, are they doing it well enough, are they feeling insecure about it, do they feel they have their own identity within, so you’ve got all those things going at all times too … it’s a bit strange when I look out there and go oh my god that’s one of my daughters doing that or that’s my other daughter doing that or that’s my nephew, ‘cause you only ever think of them as 3 yr olds and they are not, they are fulfilling adult jobs and doing it well and I guess it just gives you the opportunity to see them in an adult environment and feel proud about it… even though they all find me annoying!!’

Bryan had to contend with annoying little things himself. “Rachel wanted my pyjama collar turned up all the time which I hated… but I gave in after a while … she’s the director I thought.” He also resented having to shave off his sideburns as part of the characterisation of an older man.

"she’s the one actor who I think is irreplaceable in this film"

The hand picked cast includes newcomer Sophie Lowe – “she’s the one actor who I think is irreplaceable in this film,” says Rachel. Lowe’s innocence, vulnerability and complex, ethereal quality help forge a character that dominates the film’s emotional landscape, much like Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Briony did in Atonement.

The score for the film was developed and recorded by legendary Australian musician Tex Perkins and fellow Dark Horses member Murray Paterson. Beautiful Kate is their first film sound track.

There were many reasons why they were keen to work on this project as Tex says; being good friends with both Ben Mendelsohn and Bryan Brown (‘two fine gentlemen, two fine actors’), it being Rachel Ward’s first film, but primarily because “I absolutely love this film… it’s a very interesting thing to do, a sound track but I was so pleased that I really, really like the film.”

Recorded in a workshop in Northern NSW, Booyong, the old general store, which is now owned by guitar and mandolin maker Les Dorothy and from whom they rented a small studio with sound engineer Russell Dunlop.

The only time her natural modesty is interrupted is when talking about the film’s cinematographer, Andrew Commis. “If I’m to credit myself with any genius at all in the making of this film it was finding Andrew Commis and taking the punt on somebody who had done some magnificent shorts but who had never done a feature before. Because I’d never directed a feature before I knew that was going to be scary for the people who were concerned about bringing this movie in on time and on budget.”

"such a beautiful take on the world"

She continues, “but the minute I saw his two shorts I just knew he had such a beautiful take on the world and I loved his framing and his sensibility - he is a dark romantic. I said to him “I hope you can make me look as good as you made the directors look on your other two short films.”

Published August 6, 2009

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Rachel Ward - on set


Sophie Lowe - as Kate

Ben Mendelsohn - as Ned

Bryan Brown - as Bruce

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