True to its title, Strangerland takes viewers to a very strange place, one that is tense, disorientating and disturbing, but mostly unrewarding, says Colum Finnegan
Nicole Kidman heads up the bill in this Irish-Australian co-production, which sees a family’s seemingly workaday existence torn apart when their two children disappear into the outback. As yet another instalment in the vibrant sub-genre of movies presenting Australia’s outback as hell on earth (See 1971‘s Wake in Fright for its truly horrifying pinnacle), Strangerland certainly aims to unsettle and, on this score at least, fully succeeds.
The Parker family, oddly fascinating in their unlikeability, comprises of Kidman as Mom, Catherine, Joseph Fiennes as Dad, Matthew, with the two children, Lily and Burtie, played by newcomer Maddison Brown and ex-Neighbours actor, Nicholas Hamilton. Despite the talent on display, there’s barely a hint of chemistry between these supposed nearest and dearests, and Fiennes is so handsome he’s out of place, making him especially unbelievable as an outback patriarch.
New arrivals in a small and depressed town, this family appears to be hiding a secret. 15 year-old Lily, it transpires, is hyper aware of her burgeoning sexuality, and has connections, illicit and otherwise, with more than one local. Dad, who seems to be in some way repressed, is unable to control his daughter’s behaviour and consequently appears to hate her. We watch him silently observe his children steal away into the night, and into the bush.
When there’s no sign of the kids the next morning, the parents head out to search for them, but an untimely dust storm appears to seal Burtie and Lily’s fate. From this point on Kidman assumes her role of extremely distraught parent (see The Others) and pulls off an admirable job. Hugo Weaving, gives the film’s stand out performance, as the small town sheriff trying to balance his need to find the children and also discover what led them to run away, if indeed they did.
Though ostensibly about the children’s disappearance, Strangerland also offers a confusing meditation on female sexuality. Lily’s promiscuity assumes a central role in the search for the children, and as Mom grows increasingly desperate, she too begins to exhibit some odd sexual behaviour.
Michael Kinirons and PJ Dillon provide the Irish connection as co-writer and Director of Photography respectively, and while Strangerland is certainly competently shot, with some beautiful aerial vistas, at times the camerawork feels a little unimaginative. The writing is similarly uninspired, with various story components coming across as muddled. In the end, it’s not clear what the film is trying to say. Is sexuality a force for good or evil? Like the Joseph Fiennes, are we too supposed to hate Lily? Is the whole thing Nicole Kidman’s fault? Add some spooky aboriginal warnings, and flies constantly swarming around the actor’s faces in sweltering heat, and you have yourself an unsettling experience, if not much else.
This is a pity as the film had promise, with moments of Lynchian juxtaposition between the horrifying and the banal giving us a taste of its potential. Given a slightly different treatment (read: dialled down performances and better direction), it could have been a powerful psychological thriller instead of an ultimately unsatisfying exercise in confusion down under.
‘Strangerland’ is out this Friday, February 5.
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