June 9, 2015
The Australian desert is a dangerous place. In her first feature, director Kim Farrant comes a cropper with an ambitious melodrama about love, loss and yet more love. There is so much breathless, engulfing female sexuality in this story that it turns an otherwise gripping film into a potboiler. Two children appear to have walked out into the desert night, without trace, and the response of their mother, Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman), is to snog everyone she can get her hands on, from her emotionally barren husband Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) to the sensitive detective, David Rae (Hugo Weaving)?
The sexuality is meant to be confronting and discomfiting. Instead, it’s just distracting and sort of irritating. Yes, I know grief does strange things to people, and sex can be a way of expressing that distress, but making it the focus of Kidman’s performance just seems forced and dramatically pointless. Her kids are missing and she feels it in the worst way? Not even Kidman, as powerful as she can be on screen, can make this credible. Forget likeable, I was just hoping for something real to grab onto. Kidman has the same problem.
art of the failure might be that the production has been internationalised, with funds from the Irish Film Board. These flowed from Farrant’s chance meeting with a producer at a festival in Ireland. It’s hard to say no to any investor, especially after 13 years of trying to find money, but the Irish presence may have skewed the project towards the kind of easy mysticism that was popular in Australian cinema in the 1970s. Strangerland plays like the offspring of Walkabout and The Last Wave – beautiful savage landscapes, slithering lizards, heat shimmer and faux blackfella mysticism. “Kids go missing out here,” an old aunty tells Kidman at one point. “It’s the land.” Really? Not the dingoes, or the bad men in utes?
Australian scriptwriter Fiona Seres wrote the first script, which Farrant has said she loved. Why then did she bring in Irish writer Michael Kinirons? The director says he added to the film’s Aboriginal themes, which come through in two major supporting characters. Weaving’s policeman is in a relationship with an Aboriginal woman, Coreen (Lisa Flanagan), whose brother Burtie (Meyne Wyatt) is slightly damaged in the brain, after a car accident. Harmless though he seems, Burtie may know something about the disappearance of the two kids, 15-year-old Lily (Maddison Brown) and her younger brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton). The Parkers have only recently arrived in this fictional outback town. They had to leave another town when Lily got too wild. Just like her mother, says Matthew, an English pharmacist with a gut full of repressed rage.
Why English? Because someone has to represent the original sin of colonialism, and its imprint on the land. That’s the kind of heavy symbolism that keeps the film from achieving a sense of realism. If ever there was an Australian film struggling to get out from under the burden of its manifold meanings and themes, this is it. It’s a pity, because there is a lot of talent on show. Farrant does a fine job with the sense of dread, and the performances. Weaving gives a superb grounded weight to his portrait of a cop trying to be the voice of reason. Kidman’s pain is palpable, bound up with self-doubt and blazing anger. Fiennes makes the least likeable character understandable, even pitiable. The desert is a mysterious and malevolent force here, rather than just a hard place. That idea is as old as the desert itself in Australian movies, but to suggest the land takes revenge on the innocent is worse than preposterous.