On Beautiful Kate and Australian Cinema
First time feature director Rachel Ward recently published an article defending her new film Beautiful Kate, a family drama set in rural Australia and starring Bryan Brown, Rachel Griffiths and Ben Mendelsohn. In the article Ward attacks critics who labeled her film as just another 'dark and bleak' Australian film:
Well, I'm calling a penalty kick for the niche product. Reviews of any movie without Paul Hogan winking, Hugh Jackman flexing, Muriel squealing or pigs flying seem to be limited to describing them as ''dark'' or ''bleak'' - but that does not mean they are.
Here are a few other adjectives with which film writers might broaden their Australian film vocabulary: enlightening, redemptive, inspiring, compassionate, beautiful, transformative, intelligent, human, engrossing, tender, confronting and, yes, entertaining.
Dark and bleak should be kept for describing the time when we did not have an industry, before the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s, or for the depressing time ahead when audiences have been scared off anything Australian that might have some guts.
The main thing that irritates me about this article is that Rachel Ward never specifies who she means by this "campaign...of criticising filmmakers like me." She can't mean critics - the film has received alot of great reviews. Margaret and David both gave it four and a half stars - a rare agreement. My sense is that she's been inspired by the relatively low rating, and poor comments, on imdb - and perhaps, more generally, the poor internet response, such as on the comments section of the 'At The Movies' website. But, to be honest, even these haven't been consistently poor. And who makes a film expecting unanimous acclaim from every sector? In any case, the ultimate result of Ward's failure to identify these evil critics is that anyone who dislikes the film somehow becomes a spoilsport - or, to use her fairly self-important analogy, becomes one of those people preventing the little kid getting to the goal.
Well, I did dislike the film. I disliked it alot, partly because of the very self-importance that pervades this article. At first, I was going to write a humorous, casual response - but after reading this, I feel like being a little more systematic. Firstly, this is not the masterpiece that Ward seems to think it is - and, really, how could it be? How many directors make a masterpiece with their debut? It requires an overwhelmingly, prodigiously original directorial vision. And my main criticism is that this is a generic Australian 'arthouse' film - and, in that sense, is far more indebted to the "dictates of mass marketing" than Ward seems to acknowledge.
Most basically, the plot is an generic prodigal son narrative. This wouldn't be fatal - partly because there is an idiosyncratic incestual subplot - were it not for the script, which sounds like how foreigners think Australians speak; or, perhaps more accurately, how a Balmain director thinks that rural Australians speak. I have family living on small farms all over Australia - none of them speak in this grunted, moronic register, or reminisce about the time "they were swimming in the dam and got a leech in their fanny". The film exudes a contrived, self-important working-class 'voice' whose only purpose seems to be to flatter a Palace cinemas demographic with a sense of 'authenticity'.
About half the film is made up of flashbacks, which follow a relatively linear trajectory, parallel to the contemporary narrative - there's nothing original about this. And they're shot with a completely generic 'breathlessness' - hand-held camera, backlit, extreme close-ups, as if to remind us how sincere, emotional and, above all, undislikable it is. The depictions of the landscape aren't bad, but they're entirely in keeping with the slightly trite immanence that characterised Somersault.
The acting isn't terrible, but the actors aren't given much to work with: Bryan Brown's your average cantankerous old bastard, Ben Mendelsohn's just a place where cliched masculine angst happens, Rachel Griffiths is a mere cipher for good old-fashioned bush wisdom ('Blames a mug's game, mate'). And the portrayal of Aboriginal people is laughable - I'd rather see them omitted entirely than used, as they are, as vehicles for the restoration of our own self-esteem and sense of belonging. Oh yeah, and did I mention that the main character starts writing down his version of events, which gradually segues into an interior monologue? Just in case we don't understand the emotional magnitude of what's taking place.
It's appropriate that Ward refers to the Australian Renaissance. Back in the 1970s, it was an original aesthetic gesture for Australian films to focus on exurban protagonists (and, despite the kangaroo-laden rural backdrop, this effectively feels like yet another elaboration of outer suburbia) in a heightened demotic, vernacular register. Now, it just feels tired - a completely contrived bleakness and banality that reproaches you for not being 'authentic' enough, or caring about Australian cinema enough, if you don't like it.
Well, I do like Australian cinema, and think there have been some great films in the last decade. For my money, Rolf de Heer is the greatest Australian auteur of the last fifteen years or so - a consistently original, daring director, who I always respect, if not always enjoy. Ray Lawrence would also be up there, if he were a little more prolific. And there have been directorial one-offs which have been more impressive as well. 'Praise', for example, was John Curran's first feature film - although it was admittedly based on a very strong novel. Speaking of which, critics have waxed lyrical about Ward's success in transplanting her source material - a short story set in the American South - to the outback, but, to me, this just seems to clarify how much of a generic afterthought its insistent 'Australianness' is.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't an unwatchable film. And it's understandable that any director should feel pride in their product. But you're allowed to dislike it without being un-Australian.
For more on Australian cinema see this previous post on Noise.