Beautiful Kate, the directorial debut of the actress Rachel Ward, aspires to the status of outback Tennessee Williams, dramatising a homecoming haunted by the ghosts of the past. Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), a writer who's just hit 40, returns with his bored, sexy actress girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) to the family ranch, where his manipulative father Bruce (Bryan Brown) is seeing out his days with a congenital heart disease, and his sister Sally (Rachel Griffiths) strives vainly to keep up appearances. Two absences are felt at the dinner table, both of family members lost at a formative stage: Ned's elder brother Cliff, who saw suicide as the only way out of a stifling situation, and their younger sis Kate, with whom Ned was possibly too close, and whose ultimate fate nobody seems much inclined to discuss. Starved of rain, the ranch becomes another hothouse, one in which all the old recriminations will again start to flourish.
While we wait for flashbacks to out the family's better-kept secrets, the on-screen tension relies on the extent to which Ned is his own man, and how much he's inherited from his father: practically the first thing the writer does upon returning to the fold is occupy his dad's sometime study to work on his latest, autobiographical outpouring, and the two men begin to squabble for the actress's affections. There is, admittedly, plenty of dramatic meat for the actors to chew over here: Brown gets to do monstrous indifference, Mendelsohn to suggest a soul as generally torn and crumpled as a discarded first draft. The flaw is one of design. With the civilising presences (Griffiths' matter-of-fact sister, Dermody's teasing saucepot) rather too conveniently spirited away off-screen, the focus narrows to the male leads: we're left watching two aging rams butting heads for two hours, with only scenes from Ned's adolescence to break up the monotony, some of which rather resemble ads for an incest-fragranced fabric softener. Ward establishes a langorous mood, and sets out a persuasive sense of place, but the ending is softer than Williams would surely have tolerated, letting at least one character too many off the hook.
Beautiful Kate is available on DVD from Monday.