Nicole Kidman is no stranger to sorrow in Strangerland

Nicole Kidman has gone back to her roots with Strangerland, a tale of parents’ anguish as their kids go missing in the outback, says Helen Barlow.

Nicole Kidman is no stranger to sorrow in Strangerland

Since Nicole Kidman left Sydney to film Days of Thunder with her future husband Tom Cruise in 1989, the actress — now based in Nashville with her second husband, Australian country singer Keith Urban — hasn’t lost her Aussie accent or her Australian sensibility. Though she rarely performs in her native tongue.

While currently receiving strong reviews for her portrayal as English scientist Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s play, Photograph 51, in London, Kidman did return to her homeland last year to make Strangerland, a very Australian film which also happens to be an Irish co-production.

There’s a lot of Irish involvement behind the cameras, most prominently from producer Macdara Kelleher, cinematographer PJ Dillon (Game of Thrones) and Michael Kinirons, a co-writer with Fiona Seres, on whose story the film is based.

Strangerland also marks the ambitious feature debut by Kim Farrant, a woman known for her female-driven documentaries and exploring dark themes through sexuality in her short films.

Shot in Sydney, Broken Hill and the small town of Canowindra, the film focuses on a couple Catherine (Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) whose teenage kids, the free-thinking, sexually active Lily (actress and model Maddison Brown) and Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton), are probably lost in the blisteringly hot desert. Rae (Hugo Weaving), the cop on their trail, is having an affair with an aboriginal woman (Lisa Flanagan) and her younger brother (Meyne Wyatt) has a strong connection to the story.

When a dust storm threatens any likelihood of finding her children alive, Catherine enters a kind of delirium that sees her walking naked through the main street.

“She’s a woman who is in enormous distress,” explains Kidman. “Her marriage is in a very fractious state, she is struggling to keep her family together and then her children go missing. It’s a complicated movie and I suppose I am drawn to complicated stories.”

How did she dig down and find the inspiration to do the role? “I don’t know where I get it from. There is something that compels you to play a role and probably it’s so personal that it’s difficult to dissect. It’s kind of the work and I leave it at that.”

Kidman reveals she primarily sees herself as a character actress. “I remember Stanley Kubrick saying that about me and I think that hit home,” she recalls of her director on Eyes Wide Shut.

Here she was also interested in helping a talented new Australian woman director realise her vision. “It’s hard to make films like this, particularly about this subject matter.”

Certainly Farrant, who has since moved to the US, commends Kidman for her dedication to the independent US$10m film.

“We were moving so fast and Nicole completely took herself into the role and digested everything I told her. She also did her own research and drew upon her empathy for the women who had gone through this experience of having their kids go missing. It’s one of the most terrifying things for any parent.”

For the story Seres drew on memories of her own sister’s disappearance when she was young. “It’s about the loss and grief that I felt,” she says.

Kinirons was attracted to the film because of the strong dynamic between the characters. “The world that Fiona created was so fascinating in terms of this palpable feeling of how we are strangers from ourselves or from each other and how crisis forces those things out of us.

There’s something mythic about the story of kids going missing in the Australian outback and how that connects with something very primitive within the land and the people of that landscape.”

For Kidman filming on location was fundamental. “The spirituality of the Aboriginal culture was a vital added dimension and you need huge expanses of land because that represents themystery and the lure and the danger of that,” she says. “So I would like to think the only place you could make it was the Australian outback. I probably wouldn’t have done it unless it was set there.”

Having recently portrayed British explorer Gertrude Bell in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, the fit 48-year-old admits she thrives in arid environments.

“I love the desert, I love dry, arid land, I love the sunsets, I love the sunrises. I feel very at home, even though I am fair skinned and all those things that should work against it. I love it way more than the beach.

I have some sort of affinity for those vast open spaces and have spent family holidays there. That’s just a part of my DNA.”

Kidman’s on-screen husband was initially to be played by Guy Pearce and Fiennes came in as a replacement. The amiable British actor does a convincing job as a father railing against his daughter’s promiscuity. Farrant posed the character as a counterpoint to Catherine.

“Matthew goes into avoidance and denial and blame and eventually into violence,” the director explains. “So it’s another way we act out in times of crisis and that for me was really appealing.”

Fiennes considers all the characters to be “different components” of the story and indeed of the situation. “It’s not an easy movie, you have to work at it,” the 45-year-old says. “But if you like powerful performances, if you like anything about humanity and the human condition, it’s all there.”

The father of two daughters with his Swiss model wife, Maria Dolores Dieguez, Fiennes struggles to put himself in his character’s place.

“I couldn’t imagine, I don’t want to imagine. It’s the toughest, heartbreaking thing. But the film is complex in that there is the relationship of the parents and the relationship between the parents and the children.

The way we behave and act and how children can be affected by that, I am not saying it is the fault of the parents that the kids ran away, but there is a dialogue to be had and a recognition of the way we are, the way we might subconsciously programme each other and the way young children are sponges.

I think the parents’ relationship is as integral to the disappearance as much as the kids just going off themselves. It’s a deep psychological piece.”

It actually worked that his character is British, as it fed on the idea of him being a stranger in a strange land. “It’s a strange land as much as people are strangers to each other,” Fiennes says. “The environment is the star of the movie actually.

Well, Nicole is the star of the movie, let’s be fair! But the Australian outback is so pertinent to the movie and obviously if you are an actor and you’re in that environment, that’s really helps. The land is a metaphor for so much.”

Strangerland marked Dillon’s first shoot in Australia. While the Irishman had some iconic Australian films as reference — “I’ve seen all the obvious ones: Rabbit Proof Fence, Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock”— he drew as much on Snowtown, the debut film by Justin Kurzel (Macbeth). “I really liked the visual style of that.”

For Weaving, Strangerland marks the first time he’s worked with Kidman since her breakthrough in the 1989 mini-series Bangkok Hilton.

“Yes we did that in our 20s,” Weaving recalls in his deep tones. “We probably giggled more back then, but I felt very relaxed working with her again. It’s very easy.”

How was the dust storm? “I’ve had a lot of dust blowing around in other movies but never a full-on dust storm like this. Luckily the experience is only captured with CGI and with wind machines, so the experience in reality wasn’t bad.”

Strangerland shows as part of Cork Film Festival on Saturday, Nov 14, at Cork Opera House. The festival begins tonight.

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