Glen Falkenstein reports from Sydney’s Irish Film Festival (3 – 14 June), which screened the Irish co-production Strangerland, co–scripted by Irish screenwriter Michael Kinirons and starring Nicole Kidman.
“I was interested in the theme of how we deal with life when crisis hits us… What happens when you move to a remote place and your kids go missing, every parent’s nightmare.”
Strangerland director Kim Farrant addressed a crowd of fans following a sold-out screening at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. An Irish-Australian co-production, Farrant explains Strangerland’s “Irish connection,” was crucial in getting the film off the ground.
Staying in Berlin, a friend told Farrant to pitch the script to an acquaintance who later became one of the film’s co-producers, telling her “I know this Irish guy he’d really like it.” That producer sent the treatment on to the Irish Film Board who “loved it,” the producer later telling an ecstatic Farrant, “Ireland wants to fund your film.”
A landmark co-production between the two countries, Strangerland benefited from a diverse crew, with several co-producers and key filmmakers drawn from both Ireland and Australia.
“We had this foreign element which attracted P.J. Dillon who shot the landscape from the perspective of a stranger,” said Farrant, commenting on the film’s award-winning cinematographer. According to Farrant, Dillon was “incredibly unusual and talented,” just the right DOP to shoot the film about two parents, who, having recently moved to a small town, are confronted with the land’s devastating challenges, a production heavily underscored with themes of isolation and unfamiliarity. “He was able to see the light in this country and photograph it in a different way, as a stranger.”
Set and filmed entirely in a rural Australian town, Strangerland follows the search of parents Catherine and Matthew Parker (Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes) for their two children when they disappear and a massive dust storm hits. Detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving) is charged with investigating the case, impacting many of the residents of the small town as tensions mount between the parents. Suspicions are raised, driving both Catherine and Matthew to cope with the fall-out in very different ways.
Farrant’s focus on Catherine’s feelings of grief and hopelessness drove much of Strangerland, resulting in an eerie, disquieting and all-round consuming tale of two estranged parents coping with the loss of their children. The performances from Weaving and Kidman in particular were practiced and immediately impactful. As the characters steepen into fear, panic and at times hysteria, the very visceral racial and sexual tensions between the characters came to the forefront, resulting in several tense and confronting sequences. No small part of the film, the relationship of both Indigenous Australians and the recent arrivals to the land played a crucial role, driving much of the dramatic tension.
“I realised I don’t know my land, I’m a white Australian,” said Farrant. “I wasn’t taught growing up to tune into the land, to listen to it… We spoke with Aboriginal elders… We started getting an understanding of the land and its original owners.”
For the Parkers, their lack of familiarity with the land, and fear of it, proved devastating when their children went missing. “Let’s put them in a place where they’ll fear the land,” Farrant commented. “Its unknown to them.”
Following the screening, Farrant drew on her own experiences, including the death of a loved one at the age of 22, to explain how grief and loss can often drive the desire and pursuit of sex, a central theme in the film. “Sex is a very primal act and in the face of loss… when you make love and have sex you feel very alive. It’s a fascinating polarity, feeling alive when you feel like dying.”
Farrant explained that “She (Catherine) was a character in her own right with her own needs and backstory and she went on a massive arc… she was exposed, skinless, she couldn’t cover so much of herself up and Nicole (Kidman) loved that.”
Ultimately, Farrant admitted, it was [the desire to] “look at the darker side of our psyches, our tragic flaws”, that she wanted to explore.
Strangerland took 13 years to complete from inception; a stellar first feature for Farrant, who managed to secure a number of A-listers over its long production-run, in spite of it being her first feature-length film.
A taut and thoroughly engaging thriller, Strangerland
Glen writes film reviews, features, commentary and covers local festivals and events. Glen lives in Sydney. He tweets