Strangerland is an ambitious examination about the different facets of control and how the lack of it can turn one’s world topsy-turvy. Farrant slowly moves her microscopic vision on several facets where the perceived notion of control has become central to how we’ve come to understand ourselves and the world around us, only to subvert our expectations. Broad thematic concerns of mankind verses the power of nature and the repression of female sexuality are interspersed with specific parochial concerns about Australia’s fragile relationship with its own identity. The ambitious scope of the narrative however, falls away drastically in execution and isn’t helped by some insipid performances. In the end, Strangerland becomes a mercurial product – one that has lots of good ideas, except that they aren’t actualised properly on the screen.
The Parker family, headed by Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) arrive in the fictional Australian outback desert town of Nathgari along with their two adolescent children Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tom (Nicholas Hamilton). Lily is openly expressive about her sexuality which irks Matthew quite a bit. On the other hand, nobody really cares about what Tom is up to. Then one evening the children disappear and the case is handed over to the local detective (an exquisite performance by Hugo Weaving). Catherine and Matthew struggle with the helplessness of the situation, finding various ways to cope with it. As the search and rescue mission turns the pendulum of suspicion to-and-fro, Matthew and Catherine’s personal secrets indicate that all is not what it seems.
The film though, isn’t about the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the two children. That just serves to compartmentalise the narrative. Farrant is interested in the idea of control – or the lack of it – for this couple who find themselves in an alien place, a harsh and unforgiving terrain, and how they cope with the uncertainty around the status of their children. In a sense, the search and rescue mission is a red herring. The film isn’t about that at all, which is a shame because the premise and set-up of the mystery is actually one of the more interesting aspects of the film.
The way Strangerland is shot is the film’s most impressive feature. Right at the very beginning, aerial shots covering the vastness of Nathgari quickly establish a firm sense of place, situating the drama in a very specific context. The desert town here is as much a character as anyone else. And it even has its crowning moment when the storm hits – an emotional highpoint in the narrative. The detailing in that scene is quite spectacular. Furthermore, cinematography isn’t just reduced to mere spectacle. Shots of the interiors of houses establish more about particular characters and their lifestyles than the actors portraying those characters. For example, the interior shots of Lily’s room – filled with photographs and a sense of suggestive vibrancy – highlight her expressive nature. That room is in stark contrast to the barren and minimalist interior of the detective’s room. In a few moments, by juxtaposing these contrasting interiors, Farrant and Dillon are cleverly able to tell the audience more about the characters than they ever could themselves. P.J. Dillon has done a fantastic job in sewing together implicit messages in his establishing shots and it is the way he’s captured the essence of these characters in the landscape that stays with you.
However, the film’s beautiful photography is undermined by the uncertainty in directorial vision. There isn’t any cohesiveness in the narrative arc that can propel it forward to a holistic conclusion. For example, Farrant brings forth concerns about body image and the constant objectification of female sexuality through the characterisation of Lily and Catherine, themes that she has explored in her earlier work. However, a lot of this underlying commentary remains ambiguous at best and while ideologically these thematic concerns have a powerful resonance, the ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding their execution on screen means that they remain interesting asides that are never fully realised.
It’s implied that Farrant wants to have a more honest and open discussion about female sexuality in Australia and beyond. However, there’s never any clarity about how exactly she intends to frame this discussion. The film focuses on how the male gaze continuously objectifies the female body, exemplified by shots of Lily’s silhouette and dresses as well as Matthew’s disdain of her sexual expression. There is a larger, more discursive point about female autonomy that gets lost in the narrative. Matthew wants to control Lily’s sexual expressiveness and agency and in turn, this idea had the potential to serve as a wider critique of how expressions of female agency and expression are either constantly undermined or re-constructed and re-purposed in ‘male’ terms. Unfortunately, this issue is reduced to a plot device – in the form of Lily’s secret diary – and instead of having the desired impact of wanting the audience to re-assess how female experiences of sexuality are undervalued, all the audience can really take away is a clichéd and half-baked attempt at nuanced critical discourse.
An attempt to have a more introspective look at Australia’s intercultural relations leads to a similar disengaging result. The locals blame the Parkers for bringing ‘bad luck’ with them. As the needle of suspicion points to different characters regarding the children’s disappearance, the ‘us versus them’ binary quickly rises to the fore. Sadly, Farrant uses the mystery element sporadically and falls back on to her real project – the lack of control for parents who’ve lost their children. Farrant relies on the familiar confines of the examination of parental grief for the majority of the narrative as opposed to really extrapolating and explicating these subliminal messages about intercultural relations and views of female sexuality.
This brings us to the crux of the narrative: the examination of parental grief, which happens to be the least interesting aspect of the narrative, but where Farrant focuses most of her energies and resources. This aspect isn’t uninteresting because of its familiarity, but because it rests upon a shoddy performance by the lead pair of Kidman and Fiennes. Fiennes is particularly terrible, playing Matthew like an over-the-top Looney Tunes caricature, providing the audience with scarce moments of sincerity or believability. However, Kidman is not far behind. She seems to have developed an affinity for playing female characters that include some form of gas-lighting (see similarly disastrous recent performances in Grace of Monaco and Before I Go to Sleep). Kidman’s performance robs Catherine from experiencing any understated tones of grief and instead chooses to play her in a soap opera-esque way for the gallery. That’s why, in the most interesting scene of the film – where Catherine puts on Lily’s dress – there’s more ambiguity and compounded narrative uncertainty than any kind of suggestive clarity. It’s almost a relief when the focus shifts away from the couple to the investigation being conducted by Hugo Weaving, whose understated tones bring much needed stability in the performance department.
Strangerland has lots of interesting ideas that aren’t realised properly on screen. The ideological ambitiousness and effective cinematography is undermined by uncertainty in directorial vision and lacklustre performances. This could have been a film that enriched public discourse about Australia’s cultural prejudices and attitudes towards female sexuality. Unfortunately, these powerful ideas never develop beyond interesting afterthoughts and one can’t help but wonder if an opportunity to start a meaningful discussion was missed.
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