It’s one of the most talked about Australian films of the year: Rachel Ward’s directorial debut Beautiful Kate, a visually evocative, emotionally haunting drama of dark family secrets set against an isolated outback landscape. Sure to be contentious on account of its subject matter, the film — which recalls the lyricism of Picnic At Hanging Rock and the photography of Bill Henson — is also refreshingly ambiguous in its morality, inviting audiences not so much to judge as it does to experience the lives of its characters.
Ahead of the film’s opening next week, we caught up with director Rachel Ward and her husband, producer and star Bryan Brown, who talked about their experience of making the film — and what audiences can expect.
How have people been reacting to the film so far?
Rachel Ward: It’s a very interesting time at the moment, because you’re really just getting a sense of how people are receiving this, how people are experiencing it, and that’s kind of fascinating — to see what you’ve put out there.
You must be experiencing some different reactions to this film — because it does draw you into this world, and this character who’s sympathetic, and then it… turns.
Bryan Brown: Well so far they’ve been pretty good. There’s no question that it’s an art house movie. But The Piano was an art house movie. How far and how wide you move beyond art house, I don’t know. It’s a very rich, layered piece. We’ve had fantastic reaction to it and, in terms of reviews that have come up, you go “Yeah, that’s the movie we wanted to make”. It’s been very positive in that respect. I’m not expecting people who like absolute mainstream movies to go, “I can’t wait to see that movie”. I just don’t think that’s where it lies. But if the story is compelling enough, you know it can go wider than straight art house — and we’ll find out.
The film’s poster is interesting in that it eschews “stars” for an enigmatic photo of the young actress, Sophie Lowe. What was the thinking behind that?
BB: It’s simple: it’s Beautiful Kate. You can go with things like putting Rachel’s face there or my face there, but it’s uninteresting. Rachel always loved that photograph.
RW: I think the movie is original and fresh and I think it breaks ground that hasn’t been over-trodden — and I certainly wanted the poster to reflect that. I want people to know that it’s an unusual experience and the poster presents, I think, a film of something atypical. The film is atypical. For people who want new, fresh experiences in their movie-going, the poster reflects that. And also, Bill Henson was very much my aesthetic template — and he deals with the same area of teenage alienation and sexuality. So I wanted the aesthetic of Bill Henson and the film has the aesthetic of Bill Henson and it is about beauty. I very much wanted to make a beautiful film, in the sense that Jane Campion makes a beautiful film and Peter Weir makes a beautiful film. I wanted you to be, like Picnic At Hanging Rock, to be taken into this other world . I’ve always liked alluring characters in exotic landscapes.
You’ve said that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was also an influence.
RW: Yes, I thought that was a masterpiece — particularly in just its very subjectivity. I suppose one of the things that I wanted to achieve was that sense of “What is memory?” — that visceral sense of memory, and that you’re not actually in your memory or your dreams, you’re experiencing it first-hand. So I wanted the audience to have that visceral sense of memory; of the things that smell and sound, as well as your visual sense — those things that plunge you back into memory. I kind of wanted them to go on Ned’s [Ben Mendelsohn] journey, to experience him going back to a place which he hasn’t been to for 20 years. I think everybody can relate to that. You have those subliminal currents of memory and identification.
Do you think that having the audience identify with Ned’s POV allowed the “difficult” subject matter to be more palatable?
BB: I think there are two stories going on here. It was obvious that the story that has to be told is the story of a son and a father reconciling, both dealing with something that happened 20 years ago — one not knowing what happened one knowing something that lead to a tragedy. That’s the contemporary story that has to be told: how do you get those two people to that stage? But the past story is a powerful one, and one of great humanity — of the flaws in us, who we are and how we express our love and what our relationships are. That past story isn’t the story — it’s the tragedy that everyone has to overcome.
RW: I think the film really is about tragedy, and what the tragedy is in any stories varies, but I think that what it’s really dealing with is the aftermath of tragedy — recriminations and guilt — and, finally, salvation in this case. Because I think that, for anyone who’s experienced a family tragedy, there’s enormous blame and guilt associated with it. So I think it’s almost irrelevant what the thing was that produced this tragedy — what’s fascinating for me is how it repairs itself; how people move on from tragedy.
A lot of that comes down to Ben’s performance.
BB: He’s fabulous in it; and it’s his story.
RW: He has an innate way of bringing a depth, and his innate pain, his innate conflict to his roles — he’s very good at that. He always delivers a very complex character.
BB: But he’s also a fighter and he’s also vibrant.
RW: Vibrant and funny. His wit and his humour definitely infects the film.
BB: And every character he plays is going to be a great battler. They’re not gonna be sitting back and lightly taking it. So you relate to him.
RW: He’s never dour.
BB: He’s never dour; it’s never something on his shoulders all the time. But he can express pain and angst very well and he can also be as lively as you like. That balance is great, because that’s a real human being.
RW: To me he has those qualities of some of those ’40s movie stars like Humphrey Bogart, where he just has that slightly off-kilter sexuality. You just get this sort of bad boy quality to him, which I think’s quite unique — because there’s so much emphasis on the pretty boys today. He’s not a matinee idol. He definitely brings a complexity which is essential for a film that’s dealing with complex issues.
Bryan, you said initially you thought were too ‘young’ to play this role when you read the script. Why? People haven’t seen you in a role like this.
BB: No, they haven’t, and I’ve not played a role quite like this. I’ve died many times in movies but usually as someone who was an anti-hero or anti-authority character. Lots of characters I’ve played get killed because they’ve put themselves out there. Here’s someone who’s just coming to the end of their life, so no, I hadn’t played a character like that before—
RW: Also I think you have a vulnerability. I mean, you have a vulnerability in a lot of your characters but you have a very naked vulnerability in Beautiful Kate. You, on your knees — “Bryan Brown on his knees!” [Laughs]
BB: The point with this is that I’m not playing someone who’s determining their own life — that’s out of my hands, I’m dying. Most of my characters have been men that are still very able, so it’s very different in that respect. Emotionally very different.
Was it tough to play that role?
BB: It was tough to decide to play it and to have to work out— [pauses] well, I was gonna play it because Rachel said I had to play it. It was as simple as that.
You had no choice.
RW: Pussy whipped! [Laughs]
BB: If that role had come my way, normally I’d have probably not considered it because I wouldn’t have actually thought I was right for it, you know?
RW: Actors are natural procrastinators, they have to be bullied into it.
BB: It’s something I’d better think about later on because I could be letting go of some things I should say ‘yes’ to. It wasn’t an obvious thing for me to do. Not that I didn’t like the character, because it’s a good character, but once Rachel said “You are gonna play it” it was then that you have to come to the part; you have to work out how you can be that bloody part. It might be simple to other people but you’re the one that has to be emotionally connected to it for the whole period of that take or that moment or whatever.
RW: Why don’t you try acting?
BB: Now, as silly as it might sound, you’ve gotta find a way to do that. Otherwise it’s false, you know it’s false and it’ll come over false. So you have to find your way into that. Some pieces are easy to do; some pieces are more difficult. I saw this as difficult. By the time I got to play it, I enjoyed it a lot and it wasn’t difficult — but I had to work out how to play it.
One thing that struck me, Rachel, was that you said you saw the father as Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.
RW: Yes. More visually. It was more of a visual thing that I did. I love the way in Apocalypse that Kurtz was in shadow when we first met him. It was a very slow reveal: the more we got to know the character the more he was revealed. So I definitely wanted to have Bryan deep in the shadow with the flies buzzing around him — but, you know, I sort of lightened up on that in the end. But also Bryan brings a natural authority to the characters he plays, and that’s why he was one of the rare people that could have played that part. Because you needed to feel that he was a man whose pride had definitely been knocked, and that he’d basically failed in life. He’d failed as a farmer, he’d failed as a politician and he’d definitely failed as a father. So you’ve got a man of enormous pride and capability, and authority, who gets to the end of his life feeling like he’s failed; and also you get the sense that these children were intimidated by him — that he had this enormous power over them, and was not the nurturing father that those children needed.
Is that why things happened to the kids the way they did?
RW: You could ask, “Why did this thing happen?” and I think that it’s clear — the hints are there, in the sense that I think they were victims of their environment, their isolation and their parental situation, rather than of each other. They weren’t victims of each other and I think that, when you’re dealing with this kind of subject matter, if you’re victims of each other it’s much more uncomfortable.
It’s left ambiguous, but the catharsis is there…
I like to go out of a film asking questions — having things not completed for me. But I don’t want nihilism. That’s why I think it’s “Australian Gothic” rather than “American Gothic”, because I think American Gothic is essentially nihilistic. I think this is actually quite a hopeful, redemptive film.
Beautiful Kate opens nationwide Thursday, August 6.
Watch the film’s trailer here.