A group of old friends and former bandmates reunite to celebrate Frank’s (Bryan Brown) 60th Birthday, hosted gleefully by the warm Charlotte (Greta Scacchi), in the visually stunning and isolated postcard town Palm Beach. There’s nothing quite like bringing the extended family together, plying them with booze and waiting for the fireworks.
Their guests for this boozy and exceptionally well-catered reunion are two couples. The first is the bitchy and infectious narcissist Billy (played by the incredible Richard E. Grant) and his ageing actor wife, the poised and matter of fact Eva (Heather Mitchell). The other couple is the downtrodden sad-sack Leo (played with defeat bordering on strangulation by Sam Neil) and the vibrant yet oblivious Bridget (Jacqueline McKenzie). The younger generation clinging to this maturing inheritance (Frank and Charlotte’s kids) are Matilda Brown and Charlie Vickers, Bridget’s daughter. Leaving the under-utilised Claire van der Boom who has to lumber a rote arc and strapping, cowboy hat wearing, thirst trap Aaron Jeffrey.
There are brief thrilling moments in director Rachel Ward and writer Joanna Murray-Smith’s tale of strained ageing friendship. Ward and Murray-Smith craft the desperation and impotence of these affluent ageing men in stark contrast to their more centred and together natures of their partners. Conflict is born out of the innocuous, in addressing solved problems, in shameful infringements of self-copyright. These scenes shouldn’t work, but Ward has essentially taken the John Cassavetes method and assembled her friends in a house to harness their natural energy. The drama, toothless as it is, attempts to convey an urgency approaching the down hill slope of life. There’s a moment as these frumpy soaked men walk out of the ocean catching themselves in the sun-drenched reflection that acts as a portal to their heyday; it’s electric-impressionistic. The wake up from the trance is appropriately fun.
Palm Beach is a delightful film to look at. As the sun sets the shimmering cascades of diamonds set the water lapping at sand ablaze; Bonnie Elliott’s glorious cinematography is intoxicating. The unintended consequence of Palm Beach for this reviewer is a reawakening to the overt the socio-economic division implicit in the location. Palm Beach and Avalon rose to infamy as the setting for the exteriors of Australian soap export and movie star petri dish; Home and Away. As you stare north from this opulent eagle’s nest looking past Barrenjoey Light House, there sits the natural protection of Lion Island. One rarely sees that view when you’re stalking through Umina Beach or perhaps Ettalong, or taking the bush walk to ‘Box Head’.
The area geographically north of the eponymous Palm Beach is a little concentrated dose of white Australia (Woy Woy, Umina, Ettalong, Booker Bay) known collectively as Brisbane Waters. An hour (or so) north of Sydney, this is a mostly commuter community who cannot afford to live in the decadent setting of this film. And just as you’d expect, those wealthy folks relish the natural screen protecting their community.
Like the neon lights in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) that spell “The World Is Yours” the golden dome of the Boston State House in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, or perhaps the New York skyline when you’re standing in Highland New Jersey; that flickering Barrenjoey Lighthouse is a beacon of attention. Often etching of the Sydney skyline in the distance feels like it’s calling you. The city life is what’s attainable. The chasm of the ocean and this elemental formation of rock like some Kaiju are the natural reinforcements of your status between Brisbane Water and Palm Beach. Free education, peak social services, and then famine mentality stoking fear and infecting a generation, once called great, with parasitic greed; that’s the story of Australia.
One scene in Palm Beach sees the group lounging alongside the waterway in a grass-covered clearing that feels like it only had to have been altered to be even more photogenic. I remember one celebratory trip to Palm Beach via Ferry from Ettalong with my senior class in High School, to that precious space. Our lunch was purchased from pooled money from a supermarket, carried in plastic bags and prepared on the provided barbecue equipment. In Palm Beach, to contrast, they unfurl delicious gourmet treats from tartan lined picnic baskets that feel so retro kitsch you know they cost a damned fortune. There’s a lot to be said for telling stories about ageing friends, rich with love and regret in equal measure. In 2019, this snapshot of affluence arrives with the stellar timing of Russell Brand’s Arthur remake surfing the wave of the Global Financial Crisis.
Standing on that beach on one of the final nights of high school, staring off into the distance to that metronomic light, I drank the lie that Paul Muni in Scarface or Matt Damon in The Departed before me. That naivety is a young man’s game. In 2019, in this country, I wish I’d stolen a canoe, rallied my mates and dared to tackle that stretch of ocean. I wish I glided past the sleeping lion to ransack and pillage the entire fucking place.
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.