Nicole Kidman digs deeply into the role of a sexually frustrated mother, but it’s a performance in support of a dramatically frustrating movie, writes Jay Stone
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving
Directed by: Kim Farrant
Running time: 112 minutes
By Jay Stone
Two children disappear in the hot and unforgiving outback of rural Australia or, to put it another way, the middle of nowhere. The subsequent search doesn’t uncover many answers, but it exposes the steamy secrets of the damaged family they walked away from. These include a sexual hunger that reaches its apogee in a scene of Nicole Kidman walking stark naked down the desolate streets of a dusty, cheerless town.
Now that we have your full attention, this is the landscape of Strangerland, a dreary drama that chugs along on a combination of anger, erotic misbehavior, and ambiguity. It’s mostly a nice try by director Kim Farrent — making her first full-length feature — helped along by a quartet of strong performances by a good cast. They include Kidman as Catherine Parker, the sexually starved mother; Joseph Fiennes as Matthew, her husband, an angry pharmacist (there’s a role you don’t see every day); and Hugo Weaving, discarding his usual character of the cold villain, as Det. Rae, the sympathetic policeman in charge of the search.
The fourth star is Australia itself, a section of New South Wales filmed by cinematographer P.J. Dillon with that oppressive sense of claustrophobia you often get in such dangerously open spaces. It’s a paradox of the Hollywood Western that translates nicely into the sense of small-town danger of Strangerland’s tumbledown setting.
Kidman is especially good at expressing the fading (although still attractive) appetites of a damaged and desirable woman: under a maternal demeanor she’s blowsy and flirtatious, and Kidman dig deeply into her confusions. Her famously Botoxed brow is uncreased, but her eyes speak volumes.
We don’t get the full story of the Parker family, but we can figure it out, sort of. Catherine and Matthew sleep in separate beds and are kept apart by his seething resentments and the hints of her naughty past. Kidman is especially good at expressing the fading (although still attractive) appetites of a damaged and desirable woman: under a maternal demeanor she’s blowsy and flirtatious, and Kidman dig deeply into her confusions. Her famously Botoxed brow is uncreased, but her eyes speak volumes.
The story takes off when their children — distant son Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) and sexpot daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) — run away from home, or worse. Lily is especially worrisome: the family has just moved to this pitiless outpost after a scandal in a previous city where Lily had an affair with a teacher, whom Matthew then beat up.
Now she’s gone again and there is no shortage of suspects. These include the local kids at the rundown skateboard park (homemade ramps and a clubhouse in a shipping container) and a slow-witted handyman who has been sniffing around Lily despite the fact that she’s only 15. Det. Rae becomes a kindly ally to the parents — at one point he says that he realizes that every breath they take, they are taking without their children being there — but Catherine and Matthew have been tipped over the edge by the tension. He responds with anger and resentment (“Well, she didn’t get it from me”); she responds with sex. There’s a scene where Catherine puts on one of Lily’s revealing tops and asks, with drunken coquettishness, “Do I look like her?”
Whatever that means, if it means anything. For unfortunately, the pieces of this troubling puzzle never come together; indeed, it appears that they’re not meant to. The screenplay by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres wants to tease us with hints and allusions, but the story just isn’t strong enough to support the lack of resolution. You’re not haunted by the drama in Strangerland, you’re baffled by it. The story is what happens around that drama. It’s a movie about tangents.
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