June 17, 2015
Australia is a big country, with the capacity for many stories. Some of our finest stories have been brought to the screen courtesy of Nicole Kidman, and this time she has swapped BMX Banditry for desolation of the soul. For the most part, it works.
Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman, Paddington) and her husband Matthew (Joseph Fiennes, Hercules) have recently moved their family to a rural NSW town to escape their controversial past. When their children, Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton, Mako: Island of Secrets) disappear into the desert, the entire town mobilises to find them. Lead investigator David Rae (Hugo Weaving, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) tries to figure out not only where the children have gone, but precisely where they have been.
Strangerland is a movie that comes down to its performances, essentially filling in a blank slate of relatively anonymous Australian countryside. The fundamental question of why a family that wanted to avoid attention moved to an area small enough that everyone would be at least familiar with them is never addressed, but Kidman and Fiennes still manage to do well as a troubled couple precisely because they never quite work together.
Kidman’s performance is varied, but in a way that complements the film and the character. Sometimes she seems to be literally sleepwalking in front of the camera, and that actually suits the themes of the film, which she has to shoulder herself. Even when you disagree with the character’s choices, director Kim Farrant has managed to convey the arbitrary as organic, and allowed Fiennes’ cold detachment to rub against Kidman’s much more desperate performance.
The other standout is Weaving, continuing his streak of well-chosen character roles in Australian films. The most rounded and approachable character, Weaving is also the touchstone for the film’s barely explored racial issues, which largely manifest as obvious red herrings.
Farrant, working from a script from Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres (TV’s The Lady Vanishes), largely avoids condescending to pseudo-Indigenous mysticism, but decides to briefly invoke it towards the end for no greater purpose. It is there almost out of a misplaced sense of duty rather than in service to the movie, and it does neither Kidman nor Farrant any favours.
Strangerland works surprisingly well for a film that hinges on bad teenage poetry delivered in a completely disaffected tone. The rhythms it affects are seductive, and never consistent enough to give the film a sense of predictability or inevitability. Repeated aerial shots of uninhabited gorges emphasise the vastness of Australia and the emptiness inside Catherine, because this is a film more about a single woman than her missing children or even her husband.
A stirring portrait of a couple that should possibly have never been together, Strangerland is an uncomfortable experience that works because of its scattered pieces not quite fitting. A daring debut that hypnotises as it obscures its core truths, and proof once more that Nicole Kidman is an asset to any country’s film industry.
Strangerland opened in Australian cinemas on June 11, 2015. The film also screened at the Sydney Film Festival from June 3 – 14, 2015.
Directed by: Kim Farrant.
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving.