When Catherine and Matthew Parker's two teenage kids disappear into the remote Australian desert, the couple's relationship is pushed to the brink as they confront the mystery of their children's fate.
"Kidman hasn't turned in a performance like this for some years."

Every year, 35,000 people go missing in Australia. Out in the sticks, that's very different from someone going missing in the UK. Whilst the same familiar dangers are out there, so is the desert, and, as Wolf Creek star John Jarrett once told us, "they don’t need some maniac to get them in trouble." That vast emptiness means that disappearances can easily go unresolved, and it's lack of resolution, the confounding uncertainty of life, that's at the heart of Kim Farrant's ambitious feature debut.

Every year sees another Australian film that wants to be Picnic At Hanging Rock. The more closely they imitate its structures, the further they get from its spirit. Farrant's film stray dangerously close but has a perspective that changes things, finding its voice about halfway through and thereafter developing into something much more interesting.

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Nicole Kidman is Catherine, an attractive middle aged women recently located to a small, remote town with her husband Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) and two teenage children, Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tom (Nicholas Hamilton). On the surface her life seems idyllic, but she's troubled; before long we see the cracks in her relationship, its sexlessness. Meanwhile, 15 year old Lily is eagerly pursuing every sexual opportunity she can get. When Lily and Tom go missing, the parents panic, but hesitate to call the police. There's a history to this. To police officer Rae (Hugo Weaving), who doesn't take long to uncover the secret, it's nothing especially remarkable; to Catherine it's a source of deep shame, but there's something else. As she goes through her daughter's things, searching for clues, what's palpable is her envy.

Kidman hasn't turned in a performance like this for some years. There are echoes of Eyes Wide Shut in her evocation of frustrated desire, but Catherine is also frustrated by herself - she has spent years trying to become the perfect wife she imitates. Matthew has his own frustrations and Fiennes - second choice for the role after guy Pearce dropped out - effectively fleshes out a man trying to perform his masculine duty but overwhelmed by the emotions it involves, but he knows when to step back: it is Kidman's film. Expectations of womanhood and what it means to be a woman exert more force here even than the fear surrounding the children's loss, until Catherine seems almost to forget about her son. Lily walks in Miranda's shoes, unknowable, unattainable, even if her thoughts and emotions are a child's. What does it mean to stand outside the dominant discourse, to confront oneself as other?

Farrant isn't always subtle but she invests her imagery with a mythic quality that allows her some leeway. Local Aborigine people talk about the rainbow serpent, the ancient ways of seeking what is lost. A road snakes across the desert - man-made of course, but perhaps following some ancient route. Farrant's camera plunges into a gully, yoni-shaped, steep red walls rising. Is Lily hidden somewhere in this land? Have she and the land merged? Red dust blows through the town, smothering everything. Time and again, Catherine is reminded of her helplessness, of the fragility she embodies as a human being. Her sexual aggression begins to feel like an attempt to escape. Why can't she follow the daughter who might have followed her?

With a climactic scene that recalls Blue Velvet but also owes something to the western genre, Strangerland lashes out at boundaries where there appear to be none. It will no doubt prove impenetrable for some viewers, whilst others will find it too slow and empty, but as a portrait of emptiness it is quietly devastating.

Reviewed on: 01 Jul 2016
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When two teenage children go missing in the desert, their parents' lives begin to unravel.

Director: Kim Farrant

Writer: Michael Kinirons, Fiona Seres

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Joseph Fiennes, Sean Keenan, Nicholas Hamilton, Megan Alston, Taylor Ferguson, Benedict Hardie, Martin Dingle Wall, Chris Pattinson, Lisa Flanagan, Maddison Brown, Ben Wood

Year: 2015

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia, Ireland

Festivals:

Sundance 2015

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