The Brisbane International Film Festival’s (BIFF) Opening Night included a party and screening of ‘Celeste’.
Made by Brisbane filmmaker Ben Hackworth, it ticks a lot of boxes on paper for an opening night film. Shot in North Queensland by a local talent with a known star digging into a meaty role while fronting a smaller, character-driven piece. Yet the subject matter and pacing of the movie reveals that new BIFF Artistic Director Amanda Slack-Smith is unafraid to make bold curatorial choices.
‘Celeste’ stars Radha Mitchell in the title role of an opera singer returning to the stage after an absence. She summons to her sprawling rainforest estate a young man from her past played by Thomas Cocquerel, days away from her fraught return to performing. Straight away there is unease in the air and we see the characters are both imperfect and vulnerable.
Secrets are gradually revealed showing that there is trauma from the past that will have to be reckoned with. With the courage to show flawed people who don’t always do the right thing, the team behind the picture walk a tight rope, sometimes failing to keep you engaged as the characters prove too unlikable to care what happens to them. Some plot developments are also fairly predictable making their gradual reveal even more misjudged.
Long takes of quiet observance are not automatically profound and ambiguity in explaining what actually happened or how people feel does not necessarily make something interesting.
On the other hand, Radha and Thomas give two subtle performances which suggest infinite interpretations of the relationship between them. In long held close-ups, the tension between them is palpable as they hint that at their core is someone deeply hurting and wanting to be loved regardless of whether they deserve it or not. This is a film about trying to make amends and come to peace but also how some people aren’t cut out for that.
As director Ben goes for low-key realism, seldom having the camera or its movement call attention to itself. There are shots of highways evocatively underlining how physical journeys often reflect moral choices. Love scenes and fight scenes are shown slightly out of frame and mid-shot to play up the movement of limbs and the hushed tones of voices, an inspired choice. Filmed at Paronella Park there is a clear sense of place in the movie and of growing disquiet. A passion project from Ben and years in the making, there is a lot to recommend here both in terms of performances and direction, but pacing and interest levels prove an issue throughout. This will not be for everyone.
The party included several delicious hors d’oeuvres and a chance to mingle with industry insiders. Though given the price was significantly higher than similar events at other film festival opening nights including last year’s BIFF, organisers may want to look to those for future reference.
BIFF is back and promises an exciting, wide range of cinematic offerings sure to entertain, challenge and move.