Deirdre Molumby checks out the Irish/Australian co-production Strangerland, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
Strange by name and strange by nature, Kim Farrant’s debut is a confident, dramatic, suspenseful thriller that is well-acted but frustratingly ambiguous.
The Parker family have recently moved to a remote desert town called Natgari in Australia. While the children express a sense of restlessness – the youngest, Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton), wanders around the town at night while teenager Lily (Maddison Brown) gets very friendly with the local young men – the parents try their best to fit in. The father, Matthew (Joseph Fiennes), works as a pharmacist while Catherine (Nicole Kidman) is a stay-at-home mother who discovers one day, to her horror, that the children are missing. After the town is searched from top to bottom, the prospect that the children have disappeared into the desert outback becomes more probable, and every day their chance of survival rapidly diminishes.
In spite of what seems to be the set-up of old movie clichés – a family moves into a small town and tries to fit in, the kids start a new school, a family secret is apparent – there is more to the story than meets the eye. The promiscuous nature of the teenaged Lily sets her up as far from a helpless, innocent, victimised young girl. First seen only in her underwear as she openly flirts with a worker in her house in front of her father, her open sexuality is quite shocking, and even more so given she looks like she has only just hit puberty. Both Lily and Tommy are attractive children, which only makes their prospective fates in the desert landscape all the more daunting. Another key player in the plot is local cop David Rae (Hugo Weaving), who intends to be helpful and to be a good cop. However, the balance between protecting the Parkers and having long-standing relationships with several of the locals leads to difficult compromises.
At the heart of the drama are parents Catherine and Matthew, played respectively by Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes. While Catherine quickly disintegrates into emotional trauma by the events surrounding the children’s disappearance, the character of Matthew is far more enigmatic and stoic towards what is happening. Both go through major transitions, and the children’s disappearance reveals several facts about their parents’ marriage and relationship, the town and those who live there, and repressed desires.
While the younger cast are impressive, it is the trio of Weaving, Kidman and Fiennes who are the key to the film and all give stellar performances. The changing dynamics that occur both within and between the characters is indispensable to the film’s tension, which holds the audience from start to finish. Strangerland does, however, suffer from a fairly predictable plot as well as an awkward balance between trying to be both arthouse and accessible cinema. Having built up to what promises to be a dramatic, fitting finale, the film’s final scenes seem to be more interested in shocking the audience and subsequently leaving them freewheeling rather than providing catharsis. The ambiguity that characterises the film ultimately does not seem to be so much an artistic decision as lack of assertiveness on the part of the writers. The acting saves it.
Strangerland screened on Wednesday, 8th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)