• Wednesday , 17 July 2019

Palm Beach review – unsatisfying bubble of privilege and water views – The Guardian

Countless films and TV shows present a group of friends or family who are rattled by the airing of a long-held grievance, or the sudden announcement of a skeleton in the closet. I have seen so many of these films that in real-life gatherings I find myself wishing from time to time that somebody will drop a bombshell while refilling their drink or passing the salt shaker. The declaration of a torrid love affair from long ago, for instance, or the disclosure of a secret criminal past, or even just who left the gate open and let the dog out.

In the director Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach, which tells a story (co-written by Ward and playwright Joanna Murray-Smith) involving good friends and old secrets, we are reminded why such situations work so well in drama. They tend to involve tangled-web-we-weave backstories, ethical dilemmas, conflicting perceptions of right and wrong, and moments when complicated feelings are brought to a head.

Palm Beach, which premiered as the opening night film of this year’s Sydney film festival, is a more uplifting experience than the director’s previous feature, Beautiful Kate – a poetically constructed family drama with an incestuous twist. It takes place in the titular, beachy Sydney suburb where longtime friends gather for low-key celebrations. Some of the group are former members of a band called Pacific Sideburns. The extended social network includes Frank (Bryan Brown) and his wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi), Leo (Sam Neill) and Bridget (Jacqueline McKenzie), and Billy (Richard E Grant) and Eva (Heather Mitchell).

Early in the piece Leo mentions to Charlotte the existence of a pact formed long ago, signalling his intention to break whatever this agreement is. This lingers in the background of the story while the group partake in one boozy dinner party and social gathering after another, in and around Frank and Charlotte’s lavish and airy abode, where sunshine sparkles off panoramic bodies of water, evoking the feeling of an endless affluent summer.

I have often praised the work of the cinematographer Bonnie Elliott. But Palm Beach is overlit, with a twinkling sun-dipped aesthetic more becoming of a soft drink or shampoo commercial. It’s not the waterfront views, however, but a pervading air of opulence that takes your breath away. The entire film exists inside a comfortable bubble – economically, aesthetically, dramatically.

The cast of Palm Beach, directed by Rachel Ward and starring Bryan Brown (Centre)
‘The actors tend to appear only in front of bodies of water.’ Photograph: eOne

The actors tend to appear only in front of bodies of water, beautiful lawns, fancy kitchens and well-stocked bars, as if Ward were intent on encapsulating all the things the writer David Williamson derided Sydney for being in his play Emerald City. In his own words: a “shallow, hedonistic, brassy and non-intellectual” place, “all about real estate and how to get a more desirable house with water frontage”. Palm Beach could be retitled as “Privilege: The Movie.”

There’s nothing conceptually wrong with dramas about affluence or affluent people of course, but boy does it take a while to feel even vaguely sympathetic to the troubles confronting Ward’s characters. The director’s tendency to inflate the significance of minor events is reflected during a scene in which the group receive word that Frank is beating up a chimney (as you do) and run towards him, while Born to Be Wild blasts on the soundtrack. Is this music supposed to be ironic? Is this really what the film-makers consider to be a “wild” time?

The ensemble nature of the drama divides attention between a large principal cast. The characters take a long time to emerge as distinct personalities, as if groaning under the weight of all those prawns and oysters. The cast contribute pleasurable, subtle performances, Ward’s generous direction looking for common ground in her characters rather than playing them against each other or homing in on their differences. Thus there is no scene-stealing performance – not even from the legendary Richard E Grant, who was Oscar-nominated earlier this year for his turn in the very fine biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me?

After a lax first half, Palm Beach slowly settles into a groove, growing in complexity and nuance. However, Ward’s laidback approach is not remotely cinematic (this feels more like a filmed play), and never is there a sense of urgency or stakes. I kept waiting for that moment around the dinner table when a character would air a long-held grievance or deliver some kind of whopping big revelation, turning heads and dropping jaws. There are hurt feelings and expressions of pent-up emotions, but the climax never arrived.

Sydney film festival runs until 16 June. Palm Beach is released in Australian cinemas on 25 July

Source Article from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jun/06/palm-beach-review-unsatisfying-bubble-of-privilege-and-water-views

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