[WARNING: SPOILERS, PROBABLY]
Well, I haven’t read the 1982 book by American novelist Newton Thornburg – in fact I hadn’t heard of it – but Rachel Ward has managed to produce out of it a stylish and engrossing film, aided by an excellent cast and gorgeous, often eerie, cinematography. It helps too that the film was shot in the remote but stunning Flinders Ranges of South Australia.
In case you haven’t heard, I’ll get it out now. The film deals with one of those big taboos – sibling incest. It is not sensational, it is not really voyeuristic; in fact it handles the topic with a great deal of sensitivity. This is achieved partly by telling the story through flashback which, somehow, reduces the shock value and enables us to focus on the circumstances rather than the act. Forty-year old Ned (played with brooding but intelligent restraint by Ben Mendelsohn) returns to the family farm, with much younger fiancée (Toni, played by Maeve Dermody), to see his dying father (Bryan Brown). Also at the farm, caring for their father, is Ned’s younger sister, Sally (Rachel Griffiths). Ned, a writer, is clearly conflicted and has a prickly (to say the least) relationship with his father and so, as we’d expect, returning to the farm releases the ghosts of his past. This past includes a mother who died when he was young, a father who was rather harsh and domineering, and a twin sister (the Kate of the title played by Sophie Lowe) and older brother (Cliff), both of whom had died tragically in their teens. Mostly through flashbacks, the film explores the last summer in Kate and Cliff’s lives, and the events which led to their deaths, events which have reverberated for Ned ever since.
It’s not a particularly innovative film. The transitions between present and past are handled pretty traditionally – mostly fades triggered by an action, object or sound – but they are nonetheless smooth and subtle. The landscape, which is beautiful but stark and somewhat desolate, provides a perfect backdrop for the characters’ emotional lives. And the music, particularly Tex Perkins’, to use a cliché, haunting rendition of “This little bird”, supports the film superbly. The end result is a sureness in the direction belying the fact that this is Ward’s first feature – it might be fairly traditional in style but it is definitely not boring.
I do though have a small quibble with the story. I saw the film with two other people and all three of us struggled a little to understand Kate and the motivation for her behaviour. (Of course we are seeing it all through Ned’s eyes, but it does appear from other clues in the film that his eyes are reliable). Was it being motherless? Was it their isolation (their father insisted they be home-schooled through School of the Air)? Was it indeed this harsh remote father? Or, was it jealousy? This is a bit murky and spoils a little our full understanding of the situation – and, rightly or wrongly, it seems to lay much of the blame for what happens at her feet. That said, Kate is not demonised. Rather, she is presented (and played beautifully by Lowe) as charismatic, lively and risk-taking, but as trapped on a stage that is too small for her energies.
The resolution is pretty traditional but is not mawkish – we can’t help feeling glad that Ned comes to some rapprochement with his father, that he has put his ghosts to rest and that he may now move onto a more settled future. This is a gutsy feature debut for Ward – I look forward to her next one.