Premiered at Sundance last year, Strangerland is an Irish-Australian co-production directed by Kim Farrant, starring Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes as Catherine and Matthew who, along with kids Tom (Nicholas Hamilton) and Lily (Maddison Brown), relocate to the sleepy outback town of Nathgari in New South Wales. An unsettling tension is rife in the newly formed household. Catherine and Matthew are clinging on to a shaky marriage, young Tom is unhappy with the new set up, blaming his sister’s inappropriate behaviour with a school teacher for the family’s flight from their last neighbourhood. Lily’s latest flirtations with the aboriginal yard boy Burtie and local skateboard lothario Steve is watched with discomfort by father Matthew.
Tom can’t sleep and regularly walks around the neighbourhood late at night. On one fateful occasion his sister follows him and as they sneak off into the night, they are watched by Matthew from an upstairs window. The next morning the Palmers are thrown into turmoil when they discover both Tom and Lily have disappeared; their panic exacerbated by the threat of a dust storm which is heading for town. Cue, the entrance of local cop David Rae who, after the dust settles (literally), launches a full-scale search for the children. Played convincingly by an intense and empathetic Hugo Weaving, Rae becomes a comforting presence to Catherine and an inevitable sexual tension develops much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Coreen, a very strong performance from Lisa Flanagan despite the small role.
A beautifully striking opening sequence sets a precedent for the tone of the whole film as we witness Tom returning from one of his nightly adventures. There is a palpable eeriness as he strolls the empty streets of the small town, the dawn sunlight peeking through the clouds. It is reminiscent of the atmosphere in post-apocalyptic films like 28 Days Later. There is a chilling shot as he passes a neighbour’s garden where animal carcasses hang from an old-fashioned rotating washing line. As the dust storm descends on the town, Catherine and Matthew’s frenzied search for Tommy and Lily while the town is cloaked in a thick brown cloud once again brings to mind a sci-fi feel quality. Like many other Australian-set films (to name but a few, Roeg’s Walkabout and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock), in Strangerland the haunting landscape of the outback proves a fitting collaborator when it comes to evoking mystery. Irish cinematographer PJ Dillon has harnessed this to produce some exceptionally stunning shots; aerial views of towering red canyons, sweltering sunsets, a lone iguana shuffling across a desert. Unfortunately, the overuse of said shots, diminishes their effectiveness and become repetitive fillers by the end of the film.
There isn’t a single weak link throughout the performances, and even all the minor parts that orbit the main characters are solid, believable and make a relevant impact on the overall plot. Fiennes gives a good performance as Kidman’s vulnerable and uptight hubby but is he doubtlessly outshined by her high-octane turn as a woman juggling motherhood, a rocky marriage and her own unfulfilled sexuality. Speaking of which, this theme and those related to it are prevalent in Strangerland from the outset. Matthew and Catherine are clearly not having sex, the Lolita-esque Lily has had it with her teacher, Coreen’s young son catches her having it with cop Rae who probably wants to have it with Catherine! Like the horny teenagers in Nathgari, the camera seems to drool over Lily’s scantily clad body in every scene in which she appears and although this is perhaps the idea-we see Lily through the eyes of those who desire her (the boys), envy her (her Mother), and worry about her (her Father)- given that she is under-age-this sexualisation goes a little too far. It’s no secret that Catherine is sexually frustrated so her attraction and the advances she makes to Rae are credible but her attempted seduction of Lily’s boyfriend Burtie while dressed up in her daughter’s clothes strains plausibility and verges on sordid.
There are more than a few flaws in the script by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres; Strangerland is not without its soapy shortcomings, but rein in the scrutiny and the impressive performances and stunning cinematography result in a captivating and engaging film.