From the outset - even just the first few seconds - we know ‘Strangerland’ not going to be a fun film, or entertaining. But that just means it has a different purpose than entertainment... unfortunately, I had trouble working out what that was.
‘Strangerland’ stars Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes as Catherine and Matthew Parker, parents of Tommy and Lily (played by Nicholas Hamilton and Maddison Brown), who have all moved to the remote Australian town of Nathgari, after some fuss they’d rather not discuss forces them to relocate. One night, Tommy and Lily go missing just before a massive dust storm smothers the town. Local cop David Rae (Hugo Weaving) leads the search, battling his own demons and past.
First impressions of this film aren’t too good. The score certainly doesn’t help in that regard, opening with some god-awful screeching rubbish, then spending the rest of the film fluctuating wildly between reasonably decent music with Aboriginal influences, to just plain terrible. The cinematography is unstable, with (distracting and pointless, but nonetheless beautiful) sweeping panoramas of the Australian wilderness, resulting in a film that moves so slowly and ponderously that it’s difficult to stick with it.
The story isn't interesting. I was only vaguely invested in whether they found their children, because the children themselves seemed nothing more than plot devices to explore the self-destructive nature of the parents’ relationship and their sexual frustration.
Nicole Kidman takes this opportunity to remind us that outside of Hollywood, she can still act. Catherine runs the emotional gauntlet, from fear to disgust, hope to desperation, and everything in between. Removed from her usual sanctimonious stoicism, and in her native accent, Kidman pulls out all the stops. She pours everything into the character of a woman losing her children, and afraid that it might be her own fault. Tragically, she's still uninspiring. Fiennes, while not the rollercoaster Kidman’s character is, still manages to draw us into his turmoil. We question his motives and real feelings about the situation, until we find out that he’s doing more than anyone to find his kids. Weaving is the best of the three. Rae requires a little more thought and empathy, but nevertheless is as complex as the other two, and seems to be far more sensitive to the situation than Matthew.
I was only vaguely invested in whether they found their children, because the children themselves seemed nothing more than plot devices.
Brown and Hamilton as the kids have limited screen time compared to the adults, but these are two young actors to keep an eye on. Brown perfectly captures the essence of the rebellious teenager, exploring the edge of adulthood, while Hamilton is pretty good as the child left behind but dragged along.
Despite all this - or perhaps because of it - we never relate to Catherine and Matthew. He’s too remote, and she’s too volatile. Rae could have been the most interesting character had the story focused on actually finding the children, but instead we’re expected to watch the unravelling of a marriage instead.
Having now read director Kim Farrant’s statement about her vision for the film, I know what she intended the film’s purpose to be. Sadly, while visible if we really look hard, it’s lost in the sheer weight of the thing. This film was heavy going, and knowing that it was trying to reflect the nature of... something... didn’t really make up for how uncomfortable it was to watch. On top of all this, the film ends with more questions than answers, so not only is it tough to watch, it’s there’s no reward for our perseverance at the end.
If you’re a fan of obtuse messages and deconstruction for its own sake, ‘Strangerland’ could be useful. I can see it becoming a film study standard, but for any other purpose, steer clear.