Radha Mitchell leads as an ageing soprano in tropical Queensland

Dir/scr. Ben Hackworth. Australia. 2018. 105 mins.

The lush tropical greenery of Australia’s north-eastern reaches makes a resplendent backdrop in Celeste, but it’s Radha Mitchell who blooms in this admirable, affecting and operatic drama. She’s playing a retired soprano preparing for a long-awaited final hurrah in a part that moves from diva antics to long-lingering grief to thorny romantic intrigue. The actress provides the star factor that should ensure further interest for Celeste beyond its Melbourne International Film Festival debut while also being the film’s powerhouse centre.

Queensland’s dense rainforest both cloaks the feature in intimacy and heightens its theatricality, as if providing the backdrop to a particularly eye-catching stage

In his second film after 2007’s Corroborree, writer/director Ben Hackworth wrings an unguarded performance out of his committed lead. A graduate of Cannes’ L’Atelier incubator, Celeste offers a showcase of Australian acting talent across multiple generations, with The Book of Revelation’s Nadine Garner bringing grit to yet another role in her three-decade career, Thomas Cocquerel building upon the promise shown in Red Dog: True Blue, Table 19 and OtherLife, and The Daughter’s Odessa Young turning in her best work since starring opposite Mitchell in Looking for Grace.

It has been 15 years since Celeste’s titular character earned a name as one of the country’s most promising young opera stars, and Mitchell ensures that a decade-plus of sorrow oozes through her pores. Releasing an acclaimed album, achieving success overseas and then giving it all away in the name of love, the now forty-something Celeste has long been ensconced in the leafy but crumbling estate she calls home. Still mourning the death of her husband ten years earlier, she drinks as she wanders the grounds, and relies heavily on her live-in best friend and producer Grace (Garner) as her big show inches closer.

After reaching out to tempt him back for the concert, Celeste also circles around her estranged stepson Jack (Cocquerel) — who left as a slip of a teenage boy (Kai Lewins, seen in flashbacks), but returns a hot-blooded man now trying to outrun his troubles. From the moment that Celeste locks eyes on the now-adult Jack, there’s a feeling of inevitability about their path, and yet nothing that follows ever wallows in obviousness. Alas, the same can’t be said about Jack’s debt woes or the thugs chasing him across Queensland in the plot’s least convincing elements. Thankfully, his other relationship with local shop worker and costume designer Rita (Young) fares considerably better, though it’s met with Celeste’s jealousy-fuelled disapproval.

Co-writing the script with the late Australian actor and playwright Bille Brown, Hackworth demonstrates sensitivity in fleshing out Celeste’s complicated central relationship — remaining cognisant of the melodramatic familiarity in the story’s broad strokes, which follow in the footsteps of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s great female-led films, but always taking the time to revel in the emotional details. It’s an approach that gives the film’s characters room to grow, and its performances along with them, immersing the audience in a heady mix of loss, love, loyalty, redemption and deep-felt yet ever-shifting bonds.

Similarly flourishing before viewers’ eyes is the film’s stunning location, showcasing a part of the country — Innisfail, near Cairns in the far north of Queensland — rarely employed in Australian cinema. Every great opera has a great setting, after all, and this wall of dense rainforest both cloaks the feature in intimacy and heightens its theatricality, as if providing the backdrop to a particularly eye-catching stage. 

Production company: Unicorn Films

International sales: LevelK, tine.klint@levelk.dk

Producers: Lizzette Atkins, Raphael Cooks

Screenplay: Ben Hackworth, Bille Brown

Production design: Ross Wallace

Editing: Peter Carrodus

Cinematography: Katie Milwright

Music: Jackson Milas, Antony Partos

Cast: Radha Mitchell, Thomas Cocquerel, Nadine Garner, Odessa Young