‘Palm Beach.’

Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach, a comedy-drama about a group of lifelong friends reuniting to celebrate a special birthday, will open the Sydney Film Festival at the State Theatre on Wednesday June 5.

Scripted by Ward and Joanna Murray-Smith, the film stars Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Greta Scacchi, Richard E Grant, Jacqueline McKenzie, Claire van der Boom, Aaron Jeffrey, Heather Mitchell, Matilda Brown and new faces Frances Berry and Charlie Vickers.

The good times roll at a Palm Beach house with loads of laughter, lavish meals, wine and music until tensions mount and new and old resentments surface over three days. Brown, Neill and Grant play former members of a one hit wonder band called Pacific Sideburns.

The inspiration stemmed from a Christmas in Wales which Brown and his wife Rachel spent with three other couples five years ago. It was a funny and warm occasion but when they got home Brown realised all the blokes, including himself, were battling issues.

“It was like being in quicksand and not knowing the way out,” he tells IF. One guy had been made redundant, another had health issues and Brown had been beset with anxiety.

Shortly afterwards he saw The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in a cinema full of people aged 50-plus, exactly the audience he thought this movie would appeal to. He discussed his idea with producer Deb Balderstone, with whom he collaborated on Dirty Deeds in 2002.

She loved the project and they began development with Troy Lum at eOne. Brown and Ward asked Joanna Murray-Smith to come on board after being bowled over by her play Fury, which explored extremism within wealthy white suburban Australia.

Casting came together quickly. The couples are played by Brown and Scacchi; McKenzie and Neill; and Grant and Mitchell. Van der Boom and Jeffrey play another couple, with Matilda as Brown’s daughter, Vickers as his son and Berry as McKenzie’s daughter. The occasion is a milestone birthday for Brown’s character.

He is confident the film will appeal to the under-served older demographic and is determined to spread the word in the lead-up to the cinema release.

It is the director’s second feature following 2009’s Beautiful Kate, which will screen at this year’s festival as part of Essential Australian Women Directors – 10 Trailblazers selected by David Stratton.

Rachel Ward on set.

“Ward is an incredible Australian storyteller whose second feature combines a breathtaking Sydney location with an exuberant and life-affirming story celebrating friendship, brought alive with witty dialogue and a cast of great talent at the top of their game,” Sydney Film Festival Director Nashen Moodley said. “The festival is thrilled to open with the world premiere of this fantastic ensemble piece.”

More than 50 per cent of the crew is female, including DOP Bonnie Elliott, production designer Melinda Doring, art director Sophie Nash, costume designer Joanna Mae Park and casting director Kirsty McGregor.

The producers are Bryan Brown for New Town Films and Deb Balderstone for Soapbox Industries, with funding from Screen Australia, Create NSW and Spectrum Films and the support of Destination NSW.

Universal Pictures, which inherited the film from eOne, is planning a wide release on August 8. Seville is handling international sales.

Tickets to the opening night, flexipasses and subscriptions are on sale now via sff.org.au.

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