Rachel’s Farm review: lovely but a little whiffy

It may not present a world available to most of us but Ward's documentary offers some treats for viewers and animals to chew on.

There’s something quite cinematically Australian about Rachel Ward, daughter of English aristocracy, meeting her working class, south-west Sydney-raised future husband Bryan Brown in the Australian outback when they were both cast in Daryl Duke’s adaptation of seminal Colleen McCullough novel The Thorn Birds (1983).

I say cinematically, because of course they didn’t. They actually met in America, where the show was inexplicably shot between California and Hawaii.

Their opposites-attract vibe remains strong all these years on, as is made abundantly clear in Palm Beach director Ward’s somewhat rambling auto-documentary, Rachel’s Farm. She excitedly talks about dung beetle-driven plans to transform their sprawling country farm (they have a Sydney pad, too) into a regenerative business that’s kind on the planet, while he just wants to know how much the new fencing is going to set him back (a casual $20k, apparently).

Narrating from the kitchen table, Ward outlines that they raised their kids here together in uninterrupted bliss until the terrible Black Summer of 2019/20, which ravaged much of Australia and roared up to their gates. Fearing all would be lost, they had a lucky escape, though neighbours’ places were wiped off the map. That, and the arrival of her first grandchild, was the jolt Ward needed to play a more active role in beating back the end times of the ever-encroaching climate crisis.

‘What kind of future did he have,’ she says on seeing her grandson crawl on the lawn. ‘What have I not done to secure his future? I just felt overwhelmed.’

Fireproofing the future

While most of us wrestle with how much we can achieve on our own and try to do our bit as best we can, if not fully surrendering to disaster paralysis, Ward had grander ideas. Joining forces (and eventually paddocks) with neighbouring farmer Mick Green and his father, they set about trying to restore the dry earth around them by (mostly) eschewing chemicals and hewing closer to nature’s design, as mimicked by regenerative farming.

One of the more interesting aspects of the practice involves a fresh look at cow rearing. Often framed as one of the climate villains, thanks to mass-farming techniques that turn their burps and farts into weapons of mass atmospheric destruction, their reprieve offered here suggests that by keeping them in smaller numbers and cycling them through daintier paddocks, their poop can get to work refreshing the soil in patches that aren’t grazed within an inch of their life.

Those handy dung beetles, which arrive rather comically by good ol’ Aus Post pick-up, help by borrowing deep with the cow doo-doo in tow. It also involves re-wilding spaces, bringing back grasses and plants long gone in this locale, which in turn encourages absentee wildlife to come home, too. Much of his harks back to the way First Nations peoples tend for the land in a much more constructive balance, with Ward welcoming traditional owner Kenny Walker to share his knowledge.

He notes: ‘You’ve got to be in it to really find out the heart and soul of everything’.

Read: What to stream in September 2023: new shows and films in Australia

Ward also speaks to regenerative farming proponents Allan Savory and Call of the Reed Warbler author Charles Massy to share their insights as she tries (and occasionally fails) to put these theories into practice. There’s a certain amount of reverse Pygmalion comedy to be had in her terribly well-spoken swearing when things do go awry, and in Green’s smiling eye-rolling reactions to said muck-ups. When he says to her, early on, ‘I’ll bring the brawn, you bring the brain,’ Ward responds, ‘No, you’re bringing both. I’ll bring the chequebook’.

One solution fits all?

Despite being presented as something we can all muck in on, there’s a faint whiff of Greenhouse by Joost’s ‘Have you tried being rich?’ horse manure to Rachel’s Farm. It’s fair to say that her and Brown’s situation is not a world readily recognisable to most of us, and your mileage may vary on this basis. There isn’t much here that’s readily applicable to your backyard or balcony garden, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

But if you’re just really into utopian visions of environmental endeavour, it’s all very lovely. Likewise if looking to wallow in wistful images of sun-dappled animals (need more of this tbh) and sparkling on ponds as a mindfulness bliss-out. Fans of Ward will get their fill, with so much of this (perhaps a little too much) delivered direct-to-camera.

Still, as clueless as some of Ward’s commentary is, this is very much a film spilled from her heart and for many, that will be enough. And if Brown’s more your style, he pops up just often enough to hurl Statler and Waldorf side heckles that cut through Ward’s overly idealistic chatter.

Rachel’s Farm streams exclusively on DocPlay from 14 September.