Strangerland (MA15+)
Directed by Kim Farrant
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving

by Ben McEachen

Oscar winner Nicole Kidman hasn't made a small, independent movie in her homeland since 1989's Dead Calm. The Australian actress broke that drought with new release Strangerland, an atmospheric, unsettling mystery about missing children in a remote town. At cinemas from June 11, Strangerland offers Kidman a compelling role as strained mother Catherine Parker.

Engagingly brittle, Kidman's performance isn't the most memorable part. Sharing the subject matter and mood of classic Australian films Picnic At Hanging Rock and Walkabout, Strangerland raises many of the possibilities and reactions associated with children disappearing. Within a multi-strand tapestry of grief, accusations and exacerbations, heart-hitting territory is widely roamed. Such emotional exploration represents what it might be like if, in real-life, this happened to your family.

The children's absence generates uncontrollable fall-out, from inflaming the problems of Catherine and embittered husband Matthew (Joseph Fiennes), to publicising the sordid past of daughter Lily (Maddison Brown). Shame, then, Strangerland becomes so full of threads, red herrings and implications that its second half sags under the weight.

Mysterious elements often don't develop into anything of greater substance. The ambiguity fuels intrigue but lack of resolution gets repetitive and overpowering. Like Catherine and Matthew, searching for discovery or meaning also can be a frustrated exercise for viewers.

Such criticism seems callous when you consider what it actually must be like to endure what the Parkers do. Indeed, someone reading this might have experienced such painful and terrifying loss. Strangerland includes intense content, especially Lily's sexual exploits and graphic diary entries. Plus, Kidman demonstrates hysteria and futility so vividly she walks naked down the main street. But these challenging components aren't as gut-punching as the core conundrum – where are these kids? Does someone have them? Will they return?

Amplified by breathtaking yet eerie aerial shots of the outback NSW locations, Strangerland gets under the skin by lingering upon the magnitude and menace of loss. Trauma or grief aren't the only consequences of loss. Old wounds or ongoing issues can surface. Catherine and Matthew are a sobering example of leaving it until disaster happens before important relationship renovations are acknowledged or attempted.

A potent piece of advice states: “Don't let the sun go down on your anger”. That's one of many wise tips in the second half of the fourth chapter of Ephesians. After the apostle Paul calls every reader to live as a “new self created according to God's likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth” (4:24), he provides practical examples of what this looks like. Where Catherine and Matthew simmered grudges and hostility until a tragedy caused them to detonate, Paul reasoned that dealing with anger in a timely fashion can thwart what happens between the Parkers.

Not letting the sun go down on anger, is one of myriad ways to work at relationships in a Christ-like fashion. Doing so won't guarantee you'll dodge tragedy. But when it shows up, the widespread consequences don't have to ignite countless other issues. Because, unlike the Parkers, you already will have been committed to relationship preservation, such as being “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ.” (Eph 4:32)

This article was originally published by Eternity newpaper, June 2015. For more Culture items on Eternity, click here. 

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