Celeste review – lush, verdant visuals spoiled by a limp and soggy storyline

Radha Mitchell’s soulful performance suggests a character with dark secrets but the director is in no mood to cut to the chase

From the opening images of Celeste, which depict star Radha Mitchell walking through a dewy rainforest in tropical north Queensland, director Ben Hackworth maintains beatific vibes and an atmosphere that feels natural but intensely manicured – like a day spa or a fancy resort. The majority of the film takes place inside a photogenic plant-filled estate, so lovely and lush that exterior parts of it look like ruins from an ancient, decadent civilisation.

There are worse places to live for homebodies who barely venture outside. The film’s protagonist is a revered opera singer who was once heralded as a prodigy, but disappeared from public view to become a lagoon-side social recluse.

She is played by Mitchell, a damn fine actor whose work in Australian films doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. Take her enthralling, cranked-to-11 performance in the 2003 oceanic thriller Visitors, for instance, from the late director Richard Franklin, which in another world might have been remembered in the vein of an Hitchcockian classic (like Dead Calm but focused around one person). Instead it seems all but forgotten.

Mitchell has made a good fist of things overseas, with roles in Hollywood productions, including Olympus/London Has Fallen and Silent Hill: Revelation. She works regularly in Australian productions, recently appearing in Swinging Safari and Looking for Grace. But it is rare (and refreshing) to see her afforded a role as dramatically spacious as her part in Celeste, with much of the experience revolving around her.

A still from the Australian feature film Celeste starring Radha Mitchell.
There are worse places to live for homebodies who barely venture outside. Photograph: Curious Films

We are informed that the titular character used to be a big deal in opera when a visiting journalist mentions a quote from a music critic, describing her as one of Australia’s most talented singers. Asked whether she harbours any regrets about leaving the spotlight, Celeste’s response is unconvincing, in that we can feel she is guarded. This gives the audience the idea that (like other great recluses of cinema, such as Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard) perhaps she is living in the past, and/or hiding from something.

But what? The director is in no mood to cut to the chase, even when a figure from the past arrives at her door. He is her stepson, the hunky Jack (Thomas Cocquerel, who recently played Errol Flynn in In Like Flynn) who is on the run from the wrong kind of people; the kind of people who carry switchblades and don’t knock before they enter. His story involves crime genre-like elements that don’t sit quite right with the placid, even-tempered energy of the rest of the film.

Hackworth is in no mood to cough up the details about Celeste and Jack’s past. He gradually reveals the nature of the characters’ relationships in a similar way to that of his previous feature, 2007’s Corroboree, which was also ssslllooowwww. Both works blur the line between affording viewers time for contemplative thought and taking the audience’s attention for granted.

A still from the Australian feature film Celeste starring Radha Mitchell.
Jack (Thomas Cocquerel): a figure from the past. Photograph: Curious Films

Corroboree has a more homespun look, with an aesthetic that embraces imperfections and invites viewers into its world. The compositions in the more pristine Celeste – which is nothing if not elegantly shot and edited – feel a little like a series of glass panels, as if the audience were constantly gazing through windows into finely arranged spaces, like Japanese gardens or the courtyards inside fancy restaurants.

The verdant mise en scène and associated atmospheric elements are present throughout, such as audio of birds twittering, leaves rustling and an agonisingly persistent sound of running water (if you’re in two minds about whether to go to the toilet beforehand, just do it). These elements complement a sense of yearning that is core to the narrative, which is ultimately melancholic.

Mitchell’s nuanced performance is restrained, soulful, contemplative. She is very good, as always, but the stagnancy of the storyline will test the audience’s patience, and nothing the star does rouses the film from its slumber. The day spa vibes are initially if not refreshing then certainly pleasant, bringing to mind what comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said about golf: that “it’s just nice to be outside in a well-landscaped area”.

Eventually, however, in the absence of more compelling elements, Celeste grows rather limp and languid – a little soggy, as if mist from the protagonist’s lagoon seeped into the very fabric of it. Every view is pretty, even mid shots of characters pouring glasses of water. As the running time progresses, that pristine quality transforms from virtue to vice. The film looks too composed, too ordered. It is visually timid, as if the director’s overarching ambition was not to create compelling drama but to mimic the qualities of a relaxation app. Celeste lacks vitality; it lacks energy. There are times when one wants to grab the film and shake it to life.

• Celeste is showing in Australian cinemas from 25 April

Contributor

Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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