The familiar plot motif regarding an adult child returning to the family home after a long absence found its commercial and critical success with “On Golden Pond,” a film which garnered three Academy Awards and was second at the box office in 1981. The bloodless Henry Fonda and braying Katherine Hepburn were of a piece in a saccharine production with Jane Fonda in the difficult daughter role. One key problem with this and other films in the same narrative territory seems to fall in the grasp of an idyllic and idealised setting. The first thing an adult long absent from their childhood home would note is how small, shabby, constrictive or estranged the place is compared to memory. The places you knew and inhabited as a child gleam and stretch to such a degree in your subconscious that the promise of alienation upon return remains certain. Hollywood too often opts for the cheat, the story book version, such as what’s on offer in “The Royal Tenenbaums” or even “Grosse Point Blanke.” John Cusack’s character Martin Blank was a heavily armed killing machine in an otherwise traditionally sentimental film.
In Rachel Ward’s directorial debut “Beautiful Kate” (now playing at the Irish Film Institute) the disconnect and discord between the treasure trove of memory and the failure to find form or match present circumstances lifts the film from the lazy brand of family melodrama. Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to his childhood home in the Australian Outback to meet his sister and dying father after a twenty year absence. In flashbacks the audience sees the incongruity between past and present. The once brightly burnished home setting contrasts with the now decayed and sunken abode, with bulges in the plaster, faded paint, and tatty upholstery. Even the landscape seemed that much more lush and vital in his boyhood memory to jar with what he meets in middle age. The film’s attention to such subtle detail is a mark of integrity.
In an early scene, on the drive to the familial manse, Ned hits a kangaroo that results in a heavy smear across his windshield. His fiancée Toni (Maeve Dermody) screams and jumps out of the car. They investigate and find the marsupial has a baby in her pouch. Ned dispatches them both. Normally I cringe at these moments of the ‘anthropomorphic fallacy’ because they often appear manipulative and trite. The anthropomorphic fallacy serves as a symbolic pratfall about human characters through animals meeting their end. Too often , you know the family pet, whether dog, bunny or cat is introduced to be a goner. (Although John McGahern brilliantly employs this device during the scene in “Amongst Women” with the hay cutting, when the hen on her eggs has her legs dismembered by the thresher’s blades. That scene could be argued as a metaphor not the whole novel). You won’t know why the scene with the ‘roo is important until the climax, but even at the early stage, the dead ‘roo establishes Ned’s character and the film’s refusal of sentimentality.
Worth the ticket price alone is Bryan Brown’s turn as Bruce. We are given a serious attention to detail by the wardrobe for a former hulking figure of a man who’s now shriveled and broken with heart failure, lost in empty folds of fabric. As a dying man, Brown holds an imperious gaze that flares up from the wasted flesh. Rachel Griffiths also centres the film with a commanding, earthy performance. When Ned shows up with the cocktail waitress, she asks him if he couldn’t manage to give his dying father his full attention. Many actors would have overplayed the line into shrewsville, while instead, Griffiths delivers it with such a mild tone, the rebuke burns deeper.