Frank (Bryan Brown, second from right) with Doug (Aaron Jeffery), Leo (Sam Neill) and Billy (Richard E Grant)

Troubled Bubble

The Aspirational Milieu of Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach

Golden sun, crystal-blue water, endless food and drink, conversation, and the company of old friends – this is the world we see in Palm Beach, and it is indeed an idyllic one. Yet it’s not long before cracks in the fantasy begin to manifest ­themselves, taking form not just as relationship fault lines between characters but also as essen­tial deficiencies in the narrative’s thematic fabric, writes Travis Johnson.

The first three shots of Palm Beach (2019), the second feature film by actor-turned-director Rachel Ward, are almost the whole work in microcosm. We begin with a close-up on a sulphur-crested cockatoo. Then there’s a wide shot on a beach where a number of pleasure boats are moored; we hear the sounds of someone working on an engine. In the third shot, we see Frank (Bryan Brown) up to his elbows in the guts of a speedboat while his adult son, Dan (Charlie Vickers), sitting nearby, looks at his smartphone, utterly unengaged in what his father is doing. What does this tell us? Well, three things. Firstly – and it can be read as a statement of intent – this is a capital-‘A’ Australian film. Secondly, we’re going to be spending the remaining running time in a community of no small material means. And thirdly, at least one of the vectors of conflict we will be exploring is generational. Palm Beach makes good on all three promises, although it must be said that it’s the statements the film seems unaware that it is making that are the more interesting.

Co-written by Ward and noted playwright and ­novelist Joanna Murray-Smith, Palm Beach centres on Frank’s immediate family and friends, who are gathering at his sumptuous home in the titular up-market beachfront enclave to celebrate his birthday. On the family side, there’s his wife, Charlotte (Greta Scacchi); his son, Dan; his daughter, Ella (Matilda Brown, real-life daughter of Ward and Bryan Brown); and Holly (Claire van der Boom), Frank’s daughter from a prior relationship. His friends are journalist Leo (Sam Neill) and advertising executive Billy (Richard E Grant, bringing the lustre of his recent Oscar nomination with him), and their respective wives, schoolteacher Bridget (Jacqueline McKenzie) and actor Eva (Heather Mitchell). A step removed from the core group are Bridget’s daughter (and Leo’s stepdaughter), Caitlin (Frances Berry), and Holly’s latest – presumably in a long line – boyfriend, wealthy cattle farmer Doug (Aaron Jeffery).

Doug and Billy with Bridget (Jacqueline McKenzie), Eva (Heather Mitchell) and Caitlin (Frances Berry)

These individuals have all come together to have a good time and to celebrate Frank, a very successful man transitioning into an autumn of implicitly hard-earned comfort, if not outright luxury. Indeed, almost everyone in the ensemble is ensconced in an enviable life. The outliers are either not of age (Caitlin), not quite on their path (Dan, a university dropout who makes noises about developing an app with some friends but has no measurable momentum as yet), or complaining a little too loudly (Billy moans about having to sell his Jaguar and, out of jealousy, subtly needles Frank over his conspicuous largesse). 

Of course, there must be drama – unresolved grievances, ghosts from the past, secrets and the inevitable angst that accompanies ageing. We’ve seen this narrative model before, most notably in John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), each of which also dealt with a group of old friends reuniting in one location for a weekend and going over both old wounds and current anxieties. Like those films, Palm Beach is haunted by a generational malaise: the sense that its characters are dealing with regrets, unfulfilled potential and abandoned ideals. 

However, the effect here is blunted; while Sayles’ and Kasdan’s characters are carrying the cultural weight of the revolutionary 1960s, Palm Beach’s ensemble dream wistfully of the materialistic 1980s, when the three male principals were members of a band, The Pacific Sideburns, and even had a hit single, ‘Fearless’ (performed for the soundtrack by James Reyne, who wrote and recorded the similarly titled ‘Reckless’ with Australian Crawl back in the day). Comparing the characters’ current affluence with the zeitgeist of their heyday decade, it’s difficult to imagine what they’re pining for beyond their own personal youth and vigour. 

The group, including Ella (Matilda Brown, third from left), Dan (Charlie Vickers, fourth from left) and Holly (Claire van der Boom, third from right)

The fading thereof is mostly played for laughs, as when the three men go bodyboarding in respectably dorky middle-aged style, but occasionally yields dramatic results. Eva is troubled by having to fight to be cast as a grandmother in an upcoming movie – and, sensitive about her age, resents that she even has to do so – while Frank surreptitiously pops medication from time to time – cancer or something similar seems the obvious implication at first, but it turns out he’s grappling with anxiety and depression. Cancer is nonetheless an ever-present if understated theme, albeit with both Leo and Charlotte having bested it. Indeed, it’s Leo’s brush with mortality that drives him to the action that ultimately propels the main ­narrative thread: addressing the question of Dan’s parentage. It transpires that Leo and Charlotte had an affair a couple of decades back while she and Frank were going through a rocky patch, and, despite the couple having repaired their relationship, the exact identity of Dan’s biological father is murky. The three vowed not to ever tell the now-grown-up Dan, but Leo is having second thoughts. Cue: many awkward scenes between Leo and Dan as the former aims for ‘paternal’ but comes across to the latter as ‘avuncular’.

This subplot is wrapped up rather neatly, but not until after a late-stage speedboat accident has added some physical drama to the proceedings (the long-brewing punch-up between Frank and Billy doesn’t really count). Indeed, everyone gets the happy ending the film seems to think they deserve: Frank comes to terms with his stage of life, as does Eva, and the cracks in the various marriages on display are spackled with communication and self-reflection. Billy is forgiven for using ‘Fearless’ in a French television commercial for adult diapers, and also learns to not be so vocally disdainful and/or jealous of his friends’ wealth. Tellingly, the film refuses to clarify which is Billy’s deadlier sin: appending the symbol of the gang’s lost youth to one of their inevitable decline, or being gauche enough to note that the private plane that ferries Frank’s visitors to his sumptuous nook is a bit much.

Palm Beach’s ensemble dream wistfully of the materialistic 1980s … Comparing the characters’ current affluence with the zeitgeist of their heyday decade, it’s difficult to imagine what they’re pining for beyond their own personal youth and vigour.

One suspects the latter. One thing is for certain about Palm Beach, and it’s that the film’s inherent attraction is not the fairly shallow dramatic arcs that play out over the course of its suitably breezy 100-minute running time, but rather the milieu in which it takes place. We’re here to enjoy not just the characters and the actors performing them – and let’s not pretend for a second that this isn’t a remarkable cast – but also the lifestyle they enact. 

It’s an alluring lifestyle, to be sure. Director of photography Bonnie Elliott lends everything a golden-hour glow, bathing the characters and their locale in flatteringly warm, indirect light, whether in the form of lowering sunrays or the discreet low-watt lamps that illuminate Frank and Charlotte’s spacious bower. Production designer Melinda Doring decks out the place in understatedly elegant fittings that speak to unshowy expense – there’s a lot of polished wood and wicker, and, simply, a lot of space. It’s easy to forget that, in a society like Australia’s that is faced with a high cost of living and uncertain housing, simply having room to breathe and move is a luxurious premium.

Frank, Billy, Charlotte (Greta Scacchi) and Eva

Yet there are still ostentatious displays of extravagance – the private plane, the speedboat, the casual shrugging-off of any expense (Billy, who bristles at casual talk of wealth and excess, is framed as a bad sport, and so we, too, are encouraged not to criticise). On occasion, this is used for comedy and pathos. Frank and Charlotte’s home commands stunning views of the ocean, but a chimney on a neighbouring property mars the sight – something Billy delights in bringing up. When Frank finally snaps and sets off to destroy the chimney, he placates his horrified wife by saying that he has quietly bought the property, so he can do what he likes. It turns out he’s lying, but, in the moment, it seems perfectly plausible – such is the degree of wealth defining the film’s milieu.

The chimney is, of course, a metaphor: even in paradise, things are not perfect, and that imperfection can rankle. Frank, at least, has doubts about the utility of his status. He drafts his two old friends into a weekend project – building an outdoor pizza oven – that is clearly an attempt to prove to himself and his circle that he still has calluses on his hands; he is still capable of honest, physical labour, even though he obviously has no need to engage in it. At another time, he voices worries that his children will face no significant barriers to success thanks to his own achievements, and that this lack of hurdles will have a negative impact on their characters (apparently, the demands of Ella’s medical education don’t count). 

Frank on his boat

Coming from leathery old Bryan Brown, the quintessen­tial bloke’s bloke of Australian cinema, these moments of existential challenge have real pathos. It’s a shame, then, that the film is quick to dismiss the importance of his doubts. Once Dan is badly injured in the climactic speedboat acc­ident, all such concerns about the boy coasting through life are quickly discarded, and the generational rift heals without a scar. That may be understandable on a personal, emotional level – what parent would not forgive all failings in the face of their child’s possible death? – but it does also mean that Palm Beach’s fundamental moral lesson seems to be ‘Learn to be comfortable with your own privilege’.

Which is probably not a message that will resonate with the vast majority of Palm Beach’s audience – and nor is it meant to. The film sets itself the task of representing a certain type of Australian lifestyle, but it is one beyond the reach of most Australians – it’s an aspirational life, one to be dreamed of but not actually grasped. In its press kit, Palm Beach is described as a work that enables the viewer ‘to live vicariously for a moment and eventually note that sometimes, the grass is not always greener’;[1]Spectrum Films, Palm Beach press kit, 2019, p. 5. Ward herself is then quoted as saying that the film ‘has lots of fun setting up the idyllic, only to dismantle it, come perilously close to destroying it and, finally, to arrive at a fleeting moment of complete happiness before the tables are inevitably turned again’.[2]Rachel Ward, quoted in Spectrum Films, ibid., p. 5. Unfortunately, in execution, Palm Beach fails to achieve the latter, although it excels at the former. The drama in Ward’s film is remarkably low-stakes, as if in fear that the presence of real conflict and consequence may take the shine off the fantasy. The fantasy is, of course, that money and success do not change the Australian character – that, even possessed of enormous wealth and luxury, we would be as dinky-di, loveable and ostensibly relatable as Frank and Charlotte are here.

Palm Beach’s fundamental moral lesson seems to be ‘Learn to be comfortable with your own privilege’ … The film sets itself the task of representing a certain type of Australian lifestyle, but it is one beyond the reach of most Australians.

In truth, though, Palm Beach presents a very narrow acceptable brand of Australian success. Doug, a country boy who prefers to drink from an esky of beer he has brought along rather than quaff the ever-present champagne his hosts indulge in, lies outside of it; although eventually accepted into their fold once he manages to get Holly to commit to a relationship (her prior promiscuity is chalked up to an inability to bear children, a plot point that, coupled with the paternity storyline, feels weirdly dynastic), he is nonetheless heavily Othered, his mannerisms and attitude played for laughs. It almost feels as though the film is casting him as the ‘wrong’ kind of rich (remember, he’s a wealthy cattle farmer, and thus not as ‘cultured’ as our musician/actor/journalist coterie), which is an odd note to hit given how much Brown’s salt-of-the-earth charm is played up elsewhere. Further down the economic ladder, the most prominent character is an unnamed taxi driver (Felix Williamson) who loses out on a fare when he accidentally becomes a spear carrier in one couple’s climactic reconciliation. It’s treated as a joke, but the implications – lost income for someone presumably ­eking out a living on a low wage – are far from funny.

On the surface, Palm Beach is a light and enjoyable drift through the fairly genial and undramatic anxieties of ageing, affluent baby boomers. Engaged with on that level and that level alone, it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of consequence-free cinema. A millimetre below the surface, though, are a raft of troubling assumptions about wealth and class that are at odds with our supposedly egalitarian national char­acter. This is a cinema of solipsism rather than of empathy; it invites us into a closed circle and encourages us to ignore everything outside of it, instead revelling in the notion of living in a world of well-‘earned’ privilege where ­problems aren’t really problems, friendships are forever and any misunderstandings can be effortlessly smoothed over with the help of endless fountains of champagne and straining platters of fresh seafood. It’s an Australia that exists for only a lucky handful, but this film lets us hang out with them for a while. Let’s just not forget that most of us don’t live there.

1 Spectrum Films, Palm Beach press kit, 2019, p. 5.
2 Rachel Ward, quoted in Spectrum Films, ibid., p. 5.