Strangerland (2015) Film Review from the 37th Annual Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by Kim Farrant, starring Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving, Lisa Flanagan, Meyne Wyatt, and Maddison Brown.
Set in the present day, the film explores the grief experienced by Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman) and her husband, Matthew (a miscast Joseph Fiennes, who replaced Guy Pearce at the last minute), after their two children, Tom (Nicholas Hamilton) and Lily (Maddison Brown) disappear in the middle of the night. Without revealing spoilers, it can be said that the Parkers have just recently relocated to Nathgari, Australia, to avoid the negative public attention and criticism received by the family when Lily ran away from their previous home and was found two days later in the arms of a school teacher. This newest disappearance throws Catherine into a PTSD-like state, and Matthew is generally unsupportive and distracts himself with his work as a pharmacist. With two missing children, divided parents, and a local cop (Hugo Weaving) trying to sort out the sordid mystery, the film, indeed, sets up an exciting premise but fails to deliver.
Perhaps the most excruciating frustration experienced by the audience is the fact that the film delivers no answers about what happened to Tom and Lily. Several different leads are teased and glimpses at possible paths are granted, but nothing is confirmed beyond a mere “it could’ve been this, or this, or this“. A particularly exciting serpent motif is introduced and revisited over and over again – as is a cryptic diary entry reading, “Touch me in the dark, no one can see / Touch me in the dark, you touch me” – and it was especially frustrating to see these dropped about halfway through.
In a post-screening Q&A with the director, it was confirmed that this was intentional and that the aim of the film was not to provide answers but to explore the ways in which people experience and process their grief. The approach is understandable, but the execution is faulty; tantalizing the audience is a perfectly fine way to go about a film, but it needs to be done well, and even a smart audience needs to be met halfway.
Another issue lies with the script, which is chaotic as a whole and stilted in its parts. The pace is meandering, and the audience often wonders when the point of any one scene will be revealed, but it often isn’t and the resulting dialogue dances around the elephant in the room (“What happened to Tom and Lily?”) and feels inauthentic. By the time the credits roll, the audience finally gets the point: it’s going home empty-handed. The best the audience gets is, “This land, it swallows the children,” and watching Nicole Kidman have a nervous breakdown and stagger naked from head to toe through the town square!
While the film does have its faults, it also has a couple strengths.
The film’s most obvious strength is the film’s cinematography. There are some absolutely majestic wide aerial shots in this film. They literally take your breath away when accompanied by the deep bass of aboriginal tribal music pounding in the background.
Deserving notable mention are the performances, with Brown managing to stand out with little screen time and little name/face recognition. As mentioned above, Fiennes is miscast – his chemistry with Kidman just isn’t there – but his character also lacks depth and range of emotion, which isn’t his fault. Kidman, of course, can always be relied upon to deliver a dramatic, grief-stricken performance that earns viewers’ respect.
It’s just too bad that capable actors bringing their all couldn’t elevate a film that feels, at best, underdeveloped.
Strangerland is screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and has been picked up for distribution by Alchemy (formerly Millenium Entertainment).
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Image Source: Sundance Institute