Strangerland

strangerland

Strangerland (2015, directed by Kim Farrant) is an Australian film starring Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, and Hugo Weaving.

The story takes place in a small desert town where the Parker family has relocated, after some sort of trouble involving their 15-year old daughter, Lily (Maddison Brown). Sensual, and, we gather, promiscuous, Lily begins to hang out with the older boys at the skate park. Little brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) is supposed to keep an eye on her, but he resents the task, and tends to wander the town by himself at night. Pharmacist dad Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) seems angry but stoic, and is often at work. Mom Catherine (Nicole Kidman) contemplates her daughter’s wild ways with a sort of fondness, and we understand that she had been the same way in her own youth. Her marriage to Matthew is rocky at this point, as they sleep in separate beds.

One night Tommy sets out to wander, and his sister follows. They never make it home that night, and it’s the fallout from their disappearance that takes up much of the film.

At first, Matthew believes Lily has simply taken off, as she had done in the past, but Catherine isn’t so sure. They go to the local police, headed by Detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving). As a dust storm sweeps through the town, Catherine becomes more frantic. Search parties are sent out, and Rae questions several youths, but no answers come. Catherine discovers Lily’s explicit and disturbing journal, and it comes to light that she had a sexual relationship with Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), a slow-witted Aboriginal young man who helped around the Parker house. Rae happens to be involved with Burtie’s sister, Coreen (Lisa Flanagan), which puts him in a sticky situation.

strangerland mathew and katherine
Fiennes and Kidman

As the days go by with no sign of the children, tempers flare, blame is meted out, and Catherine begins to unravel. The rest of the film is a strange muddle as we witness her breakdown, are shown sweeping shots of the dry, scrubby landscape, the image of a blurred woman walking in the desert (Lily? or Catherine herself? They’re both lost), Lily’s voice voice reciting some of her strange poetry.

Kidman naturally excels at bringing Catherine’s complicated character to life; a woman who mourns not only the loss of her children, but perhaps her former self, as well, a self she relived through her daughter. Fiennes is believable as a man who is angry and feels uncomfortable with his daughter’s sexuality; he has cause, as it’s brought pain and humiliation to his family. But on a deeper level, one of the themes of the movie examines the discomfort we feel with women who find their identity and freedom through their sexuality. Weaving, in Rae, brings a note of stability and reason through all the hysterics, though it’s clear he’s weathered his own storms. It’s nice to see Weaving as a real human being rather than an Elf or computer program.

Strangerland is a grim, disturbing film that doesn’t necessarily bring any closure to the story. Rather, it’s an examination of a marriage on the edge of ruin, of a family falling apart.

 

 

 

The Beguiled

the beguiled movie

I’ve been a fan of Sophia Coppolla since “Lost in Translation”, as well as “Marie Antoinette” and “The Virgin Suicides”. If you take her and add one of my favorite actresses (Nicole Kidman) and mix it with Civil War-era Southern Gothic, you’ve hooked me.

Kidman plays Miss Martha, who runs a finishing school for girls in the battle-ravaged South. In its heyday before the war, it turned out elegantly poised and intelligent young ladies, but during the war the handful of students (ranging in age from 9-17 or so) seem more like prisoners in their crumbling mansion, and the locked gate acts as an attempt to keep out the horrors that are happening all around them. Often, the sounds of battle can be heard nearby; otherwise, the buzzing cicadas are the only sound, deepening the eerie (and menacing) sense of their isolation.

One day one of the younger girls finds a wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) outside their gates–a Union soldier. Miss Martha decides to bring him inside and tend to his wounds out of Christian charity, with the admonition that once he heals, he must leave.

The younger girls are fluttery and excited at having an “enemy” in their midst. The older ones–17 year old Alicia (Elle Fanning), Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Miss Martha’s former student and helper, and even Miss Martha herself–are unsettled and disturbed at having a handsome, charming man among them.

farrell and dunst

And Corporal John McBurney does charm them–making friends with the young ones, and flirting with the older. He’s certainly come to understand the great fortune of his situation: if he can convince them to let him stay on as a gardener after he heals, he can escape the nightmare that is the war. An understandable motive, but this stranger’s true character remains elusive. Is he truly a good man in a bad situation, or is he merely trying to serve his own ends in whatever way he can?

Soon, the sexual tension comes to a head, and violence erupts. Miss Martha and her charges must deal with their suddenly dangerous guest on their own, with no help from the outside world.

KidmanĀ  never fails to disappoint, bringing the nuances of Miss Martha’s predicament and mixed feelings to light, and Farrell’s smoldering volatility serves his character well. It’s a quiet film in which the tension mounts incrementally; the explosion that follows shocks the characters into actions they perhaps never imagined they could do. This movie beguiled me, from start to finish.