Friday, August 28, 2009

Northern southern southern northern Southern Gothic: Rachel Ward's Beautiful Kate


American writer Newton Thornburg's 1982 novel Beautiful Kate is set during a cold winter on the outskirts of Chicago, where a once-prosperous family farm has been swallowed up by suburban development and all the farm land sold, the family in decline in a way that manifests in that classic trope of inward-turning decay, incest.

In Rachel Ward's film version there are similarities and differences: the setting is now the forbidding beauty of the Flinders Ranges, in South Australia's rain-deprived north, where the dominant spatial note is not increased urban crowding but overwhelming isolation. But the story is essentially the same and in some respects follows the novel closely, including the chronological jumps that Thornburg thought might cause trouble for any writer wanting to adapt it for the screen.

Perhaps because it's the story of a family, it has translated with surprising ease from the chilly north of the US to the dry, hot north of South Australia. The Kendall family, once comprising patriarch Bruce, his wife and the four kids, now exists only as a fragment: the dying Bruce ('congestive heart disease'), played in a bravura performance by Bryan Brown, and the dutiful youngest daughter Sally, played in a most beautifully understated and quiet way by Rachel Griffiths, are all that's left in the decaying farmhouse.

Sally keeps Bruce clean and fed and the farmhouse in some sort of order before trundling off to her day job with the Aboriginal community. The really lovely thing about Griffiths' character is the sense that she's happy to be this person. Wears old no-nonsense jarmies, loves her job, loves her dad, gets on with it.

So when her big brother Ned, a more than usually tortured-looking Ben Mendelsohn, arrives at the farm after a twenty-year absence to say goodbye to his dying father, she looks uncomplicatedly delighted to see him and he looks at her as though she's the only real person he's seen for a very long time.

The other siblings, we slowly learn, are dead. Something happened twenty years ago to Cliff and Kate, and now there is only photography and memory. The family's been clinically, even symmetrically, cut in half like the carcase of a beast; the barn is full of junk; the dam is empty.

You sort out your thoughts about movies, I find, while the credits are rolling. What an excellent movie, does a lot of new things, super-dramatic subject matter handled with delicate thoughtfulness. Screenplay by Ward, wow, that is the first Australian movie I have ever seen whose dialogue does not at any point let it down, and it took a British aristocrat to write it, what's that about, Ward's a very experienced actor, rare for screenwriters, she knows what words will work in the mouth. Ooh look, music by Tex Perkins, might have known. God the Flinders are unearthly and gorgeous and terrifying. Wasn't Rachel Griffiths excellent, actually Griffiths and Brown and Mendelsohn were all brilliant, who would have thought they would look so convincingly, when you put them together, as though they were all related. Got rural South Australian life visually down to the tiniest details of light along verandas, no romanticisation, no gross grot either. Southern Gothic but which kind, not McCullers, certainly not Flannery O'Connor, maybe a bit Welty, oh right, Faulkner. Lovely incidental unobtrusive symbolism, the patriarch with his congested heart, the screen door, the now-empty dam, blighted, revealing its history, the junk and mire beneath the smooth surface of water no longer available for playing in, playing games with your drunk teenage brother, on the farm, in the dark, all that sexual energy and burgeoning life and nowhere to put it, nowhere for it to go.


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