In one of Kimmy Farrant’s first film’s most outstanding images, we, the audience, observe a desert landscape that fills the entirety of the frame in an almost abstract combination of unending sand and contrasting deep shadows. While we’re seeing what appears to be a rough path through the dunes, the image seems to transform itself, revealing in its immensity an enormous serpent, as if the Australian desert were transmuted into a monstrous presence.
It’s in this world, in which nature presents itself as an omnipresent threat, that Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tommy Parker (Nicholas Hamilton) disappear one night. Both siblings are the children of Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew Parker (Joseh Fiennes), forming together the family unit that, by the beginning of the film, have just moved to the apparently remote town of Nathgari. In the family’s past, as it’s expected of this sort of film, there are several mysterious secrets, corroding and affecting every interaction, every moment of the time we spend with them.
Despite this fairly common narrative starting point, the film unfolds itself in a rather vague and ambiguous manner, creating a constant filter of inscrutable opacity over its characters, both the family and the members of the community they’re recently part of. Even the film’s ending employs a sort of, almost evasive, cinematic discourse, which is why I would strongly advice anyone that requires clarity and definite conclusions, to simply avoid the film. Comparing the film to other films, it’s safe to say that it’s closer to Picnic at Hanging Rock than to Prisoners, at least in approach if not on quality.
For many members of the audience, this insistence on ambiguity may destroy their experience of the entire film that emphasizes much more its landscapes than it does its explanatory dialogue or its character development. Being a narrative film, with character drama and a mystery at its centre, this is particularly disconcerting, persistently denying its audience the deeper understanding of its characters’ behaviour and motivations. The parents in particular seem to suffer from this as characters, constantly manifesting choices and reactions that are difficult to comprehend. While it’s ambiguous to a fault, there’s something interesting in the way the audience looks at the world of the film like the central family looks at it, a strange hostile world filled with threats.
Returning to that Hanging Rock comparison, in both films the theme of female sexuality is strongly present, but while the 1975 film unfolds itself under the distancing atmosphere of a period film, this film doesn’t such a filter. Despite its opaqueness, it’s much more obvious than Peter Weir’s film. The daughter and her sexual proclivities inform every moment of the film, turning the father into an erratic paranoid, the community into an often silent embodiment of moral judgement, and her mother into a figure that seems to loose herself both in her emotional torment as in the oppressive setting that in some sequences, like one that features a sandstorm, consumes her whole.
In one of the film’s more impressive moments, we watch as Nicole Kidman emerges from the desert into the one of the town’s streets, naked and seemingly catatonic. The people watch her, either horrified, curious or leering, and nobody helps her until her husband appears and covers her with his shirt. The only other individual that seems to show some concern for the protagonist is Coreen (Lisa Flanagen), a woman of aboriginal origins. In this morally rotten patriarchal society, the only one that shows compassion toward the figure of a desperate naked woman is another woman, a descendant from the victims of the violent colonization of the past. The feminine perspective of the director is particularly welcome in scenes such as this, never objectifying the actress’s body or looking away from her condition as a female in a world that seems to persistently victimize women.
Unlike other similar suspense films, Strangerland is more interested in looking at Australia as a land, a natural world, a nation and as a society rather than involving itself in the convoluted developments of the disappearance plot- These are grand ambitions for what is its director’s first feature-length film, but such grandeur eventually results in a fair share of problems and disappointments. The rhythm is particularly problematic and, while its insistence on an ambiguous approach to the plot is interesting and admirable, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the film needed a more assured direction, or a more bold form to make the ambiguity really work.
Regarding the cast, the impression they make is generally strong, Kidman being the obvious MVP. In Catherine, Kidman manages to create somebody with a strange and mysterious psychology that is, at the same time, immensely visceral in her despair and confusion. The suggestion of a promiscuous past on her part is particularly though provoking and deftly played by the actress, who even in her most excessive moments seems to be in perfect control of her characterization. The screenplay’s contrasts, conflicts and contradictions make sense on Kidman’s performance of Catherine, but the same cannot be said of Joseph Fiennes’ performance. The actor loses himself in the demands of the film, wildly wavering between an almost villainous aggressiveness and the suffering of a grieving father, without possessing the masterful skill of his coprotagonist to balance his performance.
As an early work of its director, Strangerland leaves me curious to watch her future work, here she shows a remarkable proficiency in the creation of an atmosphere and environment that are immensely suffocating. The landscape are threatening and monstrous and the interiors claustrophobic and uncomfortable, but in the midst of all this, a certain beauty is still able to pass through. The use of sound is also quite impressive, often giving the film a certain nightmarish quality. The film may be deeply flawed, but it’s also promising and ambitious in ways that may possibly hint at a bright future for its director.