'Strangerland': Sundance Review

Strangerland still - H 2015
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

Strangerland still - H 2015

Stranded in a genre no man's land

Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes are the parents of two children who go missing in the Australian outback in Kim Farrant's feature debut.

A man-crazy teenage girl and her younger brother go missing in the Australian outback in Strangerland, the feature debut of director Kim Farrant. Written by Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons, this uneasy drama tries to combine elements of mystery, police procedural and psychodrama into a story about how the uncertainty regarding their whereabouts affects the children's parents, an unstable couple played by Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes. Together with Hugo Weaving, who plays the local cop charged with the investigation, this Australia-Ireland co-production has some marquee value that might intrigue boutique distributors, though the film’s theatrical prospects aren’t huge, some gorgeous widescreen photography notwithstanding.

Australian brunette Catherine (Kidman) and her British pharmacist husband, Matthew Parker (Fiennes), have just moved to a small desert town with their two children, 15-year-old Lily (model-turned-actress Maddison Brown) and the younger Tom (Nicholas Hamilton). Lily’s a flirtatious, often skimpily dressed girl who craves attention from boys and men and this is a development especially her father finds hard to stomach.

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After both kids, who did not want to be in this "shithole of a town" in the first place, literally disappear into the night, the film slowly starts to reveal more information about the unusual family, including the reason why they recently moved to the fictional hamlet of Nathgari. More information than they’d clearly like to share is being dug up by a local police officer, Rae (Weaving), who’s trying to figure out why the children might have left and where they could be.

Helicopter or drone shots of vast, empty stretches of the outback and the eerie, rather minimalist score from True Detective’s Keefus Ciancia try to add a layer of mystery and foreboding to the proceedings, though the film seems not all that interested in the police investigation proper (indeed, Rae’s character is awkwardly introduced and never properly tied into the main plot). Instead, it focuses increasingly on the emotional well-being of Catherine and (to a lesser extent) Matthew, whose desperation grows with each passing hour, as it’s the middle of a scorching summer and it would be hard to survive for long without water. To make matters worse, a gigantic, partially CGI sandstorm also blankets the small town in orange dust just after the kids have disappeared, as if nature itself had swallowed the children.

It’s easy to see why Kidman chose this project to return to her native soil, as Catherine’s increasingly unhinged personality offers a great range of emotions to play without having to worry about an accent on top of it; she delivers another rock-solid performance. But the way that her fragile and needy character, someone desperate for human contact and warmth even before her offspring go missing, is embedded in the narrative leaves too much unsaid about her psychological makeup to turn the film into a true character piece. The motivations for Cath’s actions, especially in the film’s second half, can be sort of pieced together from hints dropped here and there — there’s a sense the sexuality of mother and daughter are connected, for example — but her actions are radical enough to warrant a clearer understanding of how the character got there. Without that, audiences are unlikely to stick with her, and since the mystery angle and police investigation aren’t fully developed either, the film remains stranded in a sort of genre no man’s land. Farrant, who has often explored sexuality in her shorts and documentary work, here simply leaves too much to the imagination.

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Kidman and Weaving, who appeared together in Bangkok Hilton way back in 1989, at least have great chemistry and both play sensual characters, so their instant rapport makes sense. But Kidman and Fiennes don’t exactly combust onscreen, which is partly due to the fact Fiennes plays a sexually frustrated man with a lot of pent-up anger — which he occasionally takes out on other men. But even in the brief moments in which the script seems to suggest the couple connects, something of a spark is missing (a rare sexual encounter between the two is mainly notable for the fact that Matthew doesn’t even bother to get off his chair). The supporting cast is solid all around, with Lisa Flanagan and Meyne Wyatt especially impressive as two adult siblings of aboriginal origin who live next door and who provide a tentative connection to the land that the Parkers sorely lack — though here, too, this idea is more hinted at than actually developed.

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There’s a long tradition of Australian films about people disappearing or getting lost in the vast, mysterious and alluring expanses of the outback, including several classics from the 1970s, such as Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout. Though it doesn’t look like Strangerland will be joining these titles anytime soon, it does share with this select group some outstanding visuals, here courtesy of talented Irish director of photography P.J. Dillon. His overhead and helicopter shots of Australia’s mountains and deserts are not only majestic, but, because they are in deep focus, provide a dizzying sense of unending space. His use of color to dictate mood throughout is also exceptional, as is his careful modulation of the normally harsh summer light.

Production companies: Dragon Fly, Fastnet
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving, Maddison Brown, Nicholas Hamilton, Lisa Flanagan, Meyne Wyatt, Sean Keenan
Director: Kim Farrant
Screenwriters: Fiona Seres, Michael Kinirons
Producers: Naomi Wenck, Macdara Kelleher
Co-producers: Amanda Bowers, Kim Farrant
Director of photography: P.J. Dillon
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Costume designer: Emily Seresin
Editor: Veronika Jenet
Music: Keefus Ciancia
Casting: Nikki Barrett
Sales: CAA/Wild Bunch

No rating, 112 minutes