"When you've got it, flaunt it," the song goes — and when it comes to Australian movies, filmmakers have taken that advice. What they've got is a stunning outback setting, and they certainly know how to show it off. The latest example: Strangerland.
A tale about missing children, arguing parents and the many factors that have caused both states of affairs, Strangerland has plenty of other things going for it. There's the high-profile cast of Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes and Hugo Weaving, for one. There's the simmering mood of melodrama, for another. There's never any doubt, however, that this is a movie defined by its location.
The Parker family — pharmacist Matthew (Fiennes), his wife Catherine (Kidman), teenager daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) and younger son Tom (Nicholas Hamilton) — has moved to the country town of Nathgari, laying low and hiding from past troubles. It's the kind of place where the locals know each other by name, and where there's little to do but complain about the heat, which the newcomers do plenty.
It's also the kind of place where kids wander and adults wonder, as happens when Lily and Tom disappear into the night, leaving Matthew and Catherine looking for answers. A determined cop (Weaving) investigates the case, his detective work uncovering family surprises, marital tensions and deep-seeded disharmony, while a dust storm complicates his search.
A remote town turned ugly and a scenic setting brimming with complexity fuel Strangerland, recalling the likes of Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Mystery Road. They're comparisons first-time feature director Kim Farrant seems happy to conjure, leaning heavily on the oppressive nature of the landscape as she does. Her film lingers, both lovingly and a little too long, on aerial shots of the rock, dirt and scrub, making the harshness of the Australian desert evident. In fact, postcard-worthy pictures of the nation's interior receive almost as much screen time as the actors.
That's not to say that the cast doesn't have much to do, just that they're often dwarfed by their background — and that rings true not just visually but in the story. Kidman carries the weight of past tensions in her performance, one of her best of late, as a woman trapped on several levels. In contrast, Fiennes doesn't fare as well at expressing his character's inner turmoil, leaving his on-screen wife the star of the show. The third point in their tussle, the ever-welcome Weaving, makes the best of a stock-standard part.
Indeed, stock-standard describes the majority of Strangerland as it sticks to the 'atmospheric Australian drama' playbook. What sets the movie apart from other efforts, however, is its refreshing consideration of female sexuality — a rarity in films of this and other ilk. It seems that the women at the feature's core have also heeded guidance about flaunting what they've got, their desire and desperation proving gripping viewing. Strangerland is at its most powerful when contrasting Lily's blossoming youth with Catherine's need to connect, and coping with the crises that spring from both. The space between the two is the real mystery unfolding in the outback.