June 13, 2015
Things are not always what they seem in the new Australian feature filmStrangerland .
On screen, the narrative about a couple transplanted to the (fictional) Australian country town of Nathgari and subsequently thrown into crisis when their teenage children disappear, throws many feints and dummies in its whodunnit conceit.
Off screen, Strangerland appears to be a star vehicle for Nicole Kidman, who plays Catherine Parker, the mother dealing with her pain in unexpected ways.
But debut feature director Kim Farrant says she and the film’s original writer, Fiona Seres, conceived the screenplay as a vehicle for some of Hugo Weaving’s under-appreciated qualities. He was their only casting priority, to play the country cop compromised by the unfolding mystery in the small town.
Farrant worked with Weaving on her second short film (No One To Blame) and Seres knew him well. His policeman character, David Rae, would need to offer a contrast with Catherine’s emotionally shut-down husband, Matthew (Joseph Fiennes), with an intuitive warmth.
“Knowing him as a person, we both realised this part of him doesn’t get seen on screen,” Farrant says. “Hugo’s often portrayed on screen as this villain, a cold, aloof man and he’s actually very sensual and beautiful and loving and sensitive, so it was: ‘Yes, let’s cast him!’ ”
Everyone else in the film revolved around him rather than the normal practice of pivoting around the lead character, which in this film is Kidman’s Catherine. “He has incredible depth and when you look at him on screen you read years of enduring life in him,” Farrant adds. “For this character that was perfect [because] as a cop he’d seen a lot of shit go down and been living in a series of country towns and people can get quite hard in isolated rural landscapes.”
The story behind Kidman’s return home for her second independent Australian film in a relatively short period (after 2013’s The Railway Man) is testament to the international breadth of this country’s actors. Weaving and Kidman share an American agent, who suggested she read the Strangerland script. Kidman loved it and wanted to participate, so Farrant flew to the star’s Nashville home “to make sure we were on the same page”.
“And it was really lovely to hear from her why she wanted to do it, because it’s such a demanding role and such a vulnerable character that I wanted to make sure she was really up for it,” Farrant says. “And she was. I was pretty lucky. Blessed.”
Kidman never phones in a performance, and Catherine demands a lot of her, particularly as Fiennes’s performance sets up a brick wall.
Farrant, who has numerous shorts, a couple of acclaimed documentaries (includingNaked on the Inside) and episodic network television (Rush) to her credit, has high praise for Kidman.
“She’s so incredibly hardworking, thorough — she knew the script back to front and we had these robust, fantastic debates about what was happening to the character,” the filmmaker recalls.
“She was very open to trying stuff and in the edit she’s a director’s dream because she gives you so many options, just slight variations in where you can take it, so she’s a true artist in that way.”
Kidman lets it all out in another raw performance to add to an always risky and eventful career. Catherine deals with her worry and grief about her missing son and daughter, and the small town’s gazing eyes, by reverting to a former sexual self that had been suppressed by her husband.
Catherine appears to have always been a volatile and flirty woman; the reaction from some viewers to this aspect of character frustrates the director.
“That was interesting because I think there’s a judgment around a woman or a character that is sexualised,” she says, smiling. “Apparently it’s OK for (Michael) Fassbender to sexualise his behaviour in Shame but if a woman sexualises, well…”
The film emerged from Farrant’s experience as a 22-year-old when her father died. Interestingly, it mirrors the reaction of director Jonathan Teplitzky to his partner’s death, as dramatised in his underrated Australian film Burning Man (2011).
Farrant remains curious about the period during which she was living by herself in New York and “how I coped or didn’t cope with that depth of grief”.
She found herself wanting contact, to be held or touched, although she “ended up sexualising that experience of grief” through a few intimate encounters. She wanted anything other than to “feel that tragic well of grief”.
“And then I was shocked at myself,” she says. “Why would you do that — with only a couple of people — when you’re so fragile and so vulnerable right now and yet you put yourself in a situation with a total stranger?
“Years later, reflecting on it, I was still fascinated about why I did it, and saw it in other people and was fascinated by this need to connect or make love or f..k or whatever in the face of loss and uncertainty.”
Teplitzky was similarly moved. He realised later that when something so fundamental disappears, one can’t help but think life’s normal rules no longer apply. The reaction to loss is quite often illogical or destructive.
Farrant agrees. “When you feel like the ground’s moved from under you, you feel like you have no control any more, there’s nothing you can hold on … sex can make you temporarily feel like you’re in control.”
She was intrigued by the notion of how people deal with crises and feeling out of control. In her case, she grasped on to sex, but for others it can be alcohol, drugs, work, food or violence.
“Whatever it is, we all have our ways of coping, but I felt a lot of shame around how I coped or acted out and [did not] cope,” Farrant says. “I was like: ‘Really? Am I the only person who feels like this?’ ”
Apparently not, although the film has been a long haul to progress from that original question to a fully formed story that, to be fair, plays both as a simple whodunnit and as an emotional character study. The director says it has been 13 years since she first tossed around the idea of using her experience as a potential narrative. Consequently, she was overjoyed, crying and screaming, when she learned the film had been accepted to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
The film had taken many turns along the way. For instance, Seres couldn’t continue working on her screenplay when her career took off due to her TV work here onLove My Way, which took her to Britain to write the miniseries The Silence and telemovie The Lady Vanishes.
She has also been working with Steven Spielberg in the US. And after a chance meeting at a film festival, Farrant received the backing of the Irish Film Board and later the assistance of Irish screenwriter Michael Kinirons and Australian producer Naomi Wenck.
And Sundance seemed a fitting venue for a cross-cultural rural Australian story.
“It was the most perfect opportunity because it’s got actors in it who have crossed the American divide, and it felt like even more of an appropriate home than did Cannes,” she says
“In a way the film has a few more French qualities in being ambiguous and a little sparse in the writing and there’s subtlety to it [but] it has a cast [that] is predominantly known in America. And setting a film in the middle of the desert and screening it in the middle of the snow was fun,” Farrant says, smiling.
Filming in Canowindra, the NSW town near Cowra (it was also filmed in Broken Hill, Silverton and Mundi Mundi), under the gaze of curious locals wasn’t always easy, however. One crucial and bracing scene, in which a broken Catherine walks down the middle of the town’s main street, could hardly be filmed in seclusion.
“It was my first drama feature and we had a crew of 85 and maybe 20 extras and then 100-150 town members just watching every scene I was directing,” Farrant recalls.
“And they were intense, emotional scenes with an Academy Award-winning actor. That was full on trying to block them out of my vision and knowing the most important thing was the moment and knowing where the character was going in that scene.
“It was difficult. but also the town was incredibly supportive and excited we were there.”
What the locals will make of the end product remains to be seen. Strangerland is not always the Australian film it seems. Cinema embraces ambiguity but will everyday Australians?
“To make a film in this landscape where everyone, or a lot of films, want a result or ending, [and to not have one] was very deliberate for us,” Tarrant says.
“We’re leaving you with a sense of [choice]. You decide what happens.”
Strangerland is screening nationally.