‘Strangerland’
Director:
Kim Farrant
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes
Rating:
R
2 (out of 5) Globes

As it presently stands, Nicole Kidman is box office poison, much the way Katharine Hepburn was in the late ’30s. But just as Hepburn was doing some of her best work in movies only later reclaimed as classics, Kidman has been excellent, despite no one seeing her films — that is, unless the film’s real star is a talking CGI bear. The difference is that few of Kidman’s films are as good as she is in them. “Strangerland,” like “Before I Go to Sleep,” like “The Railway Man,” even like “Grace of Monaco,” is a rickety production with a stable Kidman, acting her heart out, unwilling to go down with a production that hardly deserves her and which sometimes even seems to be trying to humiliate her.

This round is more noble than others, aiming to be a quietly ambitious mood piece that knots up the stomach. A rare Australian film for an actress who rarely gets to use her native accent, it stars Kidman and Joseph Fiennes as Catherine and Matthew, parents who’ve moved their family to a remote desert town. They’re bored out of their minds, as are their two teenage kids, who soon make like “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and disappear, right before a symbolic dust storm temporarily swallows everything. Amidst the clean-up emerge earthquaking secrets, involving why they moved there in the first place as well as a grim backstory for their daughter and maybe one for Matthew too.

Throw in a cop (Hugo Weaving) who finds that hiding his affair with another local interferes with his current investigation, and “Strangerland” sounds like an Outback “Peyton Place.” The vibe, however, isn’t trashy; it’s punishing and funereal. First-time director Kim Farrant opens her film with a choking sense of dread — an impressive mood-setter that promises more than will be delivered. She never changes up the tone, and the script doles out its revelations so gradually the film plays like the world’s slowest striptease, only one where the performer is still left mostly clothed. 

By the end little is resolved, in a fashion that means to be haunting but instead feels like a story told by someone who trailed off about halfway through then hastily wrapped things up while forgetting about certain plot threads altogether. It’s like a Farrant was trying to make an old school Atom Egoyan movie — albeit one that’s been de-Slinky-ed and told in a linear structure. Instead her film ends up closer to the recent bad Egoyans, like last year’s “The Captive,” which started off looking like a return to form before plummeting into distracting silliness. “Strangerland,” alas doesn’t even have a bad cinema angle going for it. That said, Kidman acts like she’s doing Ibsen, even when Catherine gets so distraught she starts throwing herself, unsuccessfully, at every man she meets. Someday the movies she scores will again be on her level, but “Strangerland” is barely working in the same medium.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge