Despite strong performances Strangerland just doesn’t quite work…
A tiny Australian desert town, in the present day: a couple (Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes) move in with their two children, who shortly proceed to go missing during a particularly terrible dust storm (Australia, it has been noted many times, is an extremely hostile environment that basically doesn’t want any foolish humans living there). But, between Kidman’s aggressive sexuality, her teenaged daughter’s weird flirtatiousness, Fiennes’ reticence to actually look for his kids, the highly suspect behaviour of a not-all-there Aborigine man (Meyne Wyatt), and the general off quality of everyone in town including fully-bearded detective-with-issues-of-his-own Hugo Weaving, there’s clearly something up.
You’ll also notice that there’s something up from how eager almost every scene between Fiennes and Kidman is to make sure you realise that we, the audience, are not getting the full story. Frustratingly, we never do, and it’s unusual to see a film that manages simultaneously to spell everything out and to give away nothing. Doubtless, the intent was to give the picture the air of mystery that keeps it ever turning in one’s mind over the years. Years haven’t passed yet, but from this perspective it looks unlikely to manage that. The effect, rather, is an unresolved ending that seems just to fade away in the memory, even as it does so on the screen. This is unfortunate, as there is a lot to recommend here.
Nicole Kidman seethes and smoulders with grief, lust and desperation, delivering one of the strongest performances we’ve seen from her since, probably, Dogville. Hugo Weaving, who is incapable of a bad performance, manages to invest his relatively minor – and moderately clichéd – cop character with depth and humanity. Meyne Wyatt is similarly impressive, as is young model Maddison Brown, whose only prior acting credit is a small rôle in television film Go Big, twelve years ago when she would have been only seven. Her unsettling sexuality and hints at some immense trauma recall Sheryl Lee’s revelatory performance as Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, who similarly had to craft her character through only suggestive snatches of screentime, given that her death is the impetus for the story. It is only really Joseph Fiennes who fails to make much of an impression, his character so insubstantial that he fades into invisibility against the powerhousing of Kidman; it is no surprise to read that he was a last-minute replacement for Guy Pearce, who is both an Aussie and an actor exceptionally able to bring a solid emotional core to even the weakest of characters.
But even exceptionally strong performances fall apart when the material around them offers no viable support structure. The material here is basically good, when the script retains its focus on a couple torn about by their grief and mutual guilt. There is, however, a tendency for its mind to wander, and its attempts at creating a sort of shimmering, mystic, mythic Australia are thematic dead ends. This iconography is created with a litany of cinematic touchstones: the closeups on nature, red in tooth and claw, and the sense of Europeans as invaders from Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout; the disappeared schoolchildren and barely repressed sexuality from Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock; the ambivalent look at nature’s revolt from Colin Eggerston’s Long Weekend; plus the strained, post-bereavement sexual relationship from Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which is not an Australian film but which, perhaps, might as well be – the aforementioned Long Weekend, too, plays like a cross between it and Walkabout. Each of these films balance their mystery elements with their mystical elements, ending up considerably greater than the sum of their parts. Strangerland fumbles that balance and comes across pretentious, which is unfortunate – it’s a good drama that tries hard to be a poor arthouse flick, and finally just frustrates.
Strangerland is released today (4th July) on DVD and Digital HD, will you be grabbing a copy for yourselves? Let us know in the comment box below!