This quite unconventional Australian film is well worth a look. The combination of a story centring on an opera singer that takes place in an exotic north Queensland castle-like setting makes Celeste notable before the opening frames even commence. There’s a decidedly European flavour to the proceedings, but only up to a point. You can almost smell the sticky sweetness of the tropical setting and there’s no mistaking the broad Aussie accents of many of the characters.
Directed by Ben Hackworth (Corroboree) and co-written with the late and great actor, writer and director, Bille Brown, Celeste has the very watchable Radha Mitchell playing the once hugely successful opera singer who is obviously very emotionally fragile. She’s planning a comeback performance after a break of 15 years after giving it all away to live with the man she loved in Paronella Park, a fascinating place that actually exists near Cairns and which looks like a castle in ruins amid a tropical paradise. (It was built by a Spanish man for his wife and is now a tourist attraction.)
Celeste is shadowed everywhere she goes by her long-time friend, Grace (Nadine Garner), who’s overseeing the much-awaited opera performance in the grounds of Paronella Park. But into their lives comes Celeste’s now adult stepson, Jack (Thomas Cocquerel). Jack’s obviously got troubles of his own judging by the heavies who are after him for unpaid debts and his attitude that spells trouble.
As the performance draws nearer and plans are made, tensions mount between Celeste and Jack as past secrets are revealed and ruminated over. Celeste also shocks Jack with some news. We can see that the relationship goes way beyond stepmother and son, with them seeming to bond over the tragic way they lost their respective husband and father many years ago. We learn more about that and other events in flashbacks.
For the most part, Celeste holds your attention, with good performances all round from the talented cast (including Odessa Young from Looking For Grace as Jack’s acquaintance, local girl Rita). Paronella Park itself is an imposing character that dominates everything. There’s a claustrophobia about it that you feel could swallow the characters up with its lush, overgrown verdancy. Kudos should go to cinematographer, Katie Milwright (who also shot Corroboree) for the stunning visuals.
The main letdown is the opera singing sequence where Radha Mitchell really doesn’t even seem to be making an effort to look like she’s singing (coincidentally, the real singer is also called Celeste – Lazarenko.) For a climactic sequence where verisimilitude is so important, Mitchell just doesn’t have the breathing actions or mouth shapes to convince. It’s a shame when so much has gone into everything else. It’s also surprising as the actor apparently did study some opera.
Hackworth is obviously a director on the rise with a distinct sensibility. It’s refreshing to see an Australian film – a Queensland one no less – that resists some of the less appealing clichés.
Director: Ben Hackworth
Cast: Radha Mithchell, Thomas Cocquerel, Nadine Garner
Release Date: 25 April 2019
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Vicki Englund is a film, TV and theatre reviewer, a credited TV screenwriter and a film screenwriter with several projects in development. She was the daily TV reviewer for The Courier Mail for 11 years and has reviewed films and TV for Rave Magazine, Time Off, The Courier Mail and Daily Review.