Strangerland Tackles the Australian Myth

This review originally appeared on The Film Experience.

Kim Farrant’s Strangerland is deeply, uncomfortably Australian. In many ways, it goes right to the heart of the country as a family infiltrate a place that is unfamiliar and even hostile to their arrival. A family, all of whom hold secrets and potentially criminal pasts. They could have been dressed up in Colonial costumes and set 150 years ago without much of a narrative alteration, which is probably much the point of Farrant’s debut feature. How our convict pasts have manifested as a society that turns on its own as much as the other.

Strangerland has a fairly simple premise, but one that allows for some fairly wide-ranging readings. After having left their last post due to an ambiguously alluded to crime, Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) and Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman) find themselves in the remote outback town of Nathgari. He’s a pharmacist and she’s a housewife, neither of whom are able to handle their 15-year-old daughter, Lily (Maddison Brown). When Lily and young son Tommy vanish in the middle of the night, the town deals them with suspicion while Catherine becomes more and more emotionally unhinged at the thought their children may have deliberately abandoned her.

Australian cinema has a history of critiquing its own as well as examining the role our unique landscape plays in the building of our character and our perceptions of the world around us, which are two things Farrant takes on. Think of Wake in Fright, Fair Game, or Shame for brutal take-downs of the masculine culture that has infiltrated the global idea of what it means to be Australian. Most of all, however, Strangerland reminded me most of all of the early features of Peter Weir. The aura of Picnic at Hanging Rock’s lingering natural menace mingled with repressed teenage female sexual awakening hovers heavily over this new film albeit in a more narrative-focused way. Weir’s The Last Wave, a film that has challenging ideas over the role that one of Earth’s oldest civilization and their subsequent genocidal mistreatment might play in our way of life, is also evoked although Farrant doesn’t go quite to the extent of that film’s chilling, apocalyptic ending.

It’s not by accidental that it isn’t the Aboriginal residents of Nathgari that are the Parker’s biggest problem, rather it is the white locals. It’s the white locals that suggest they murdered the children, that flaunt their rape of the daughter in the faces of the young girl’s parents, and in the film’s best scene, Catherine emerges out of the desert and stumbles down the main street of the town – a scene already highly symbolic of this country’s treatment of women and the body – rendering the white, male townsfolk speechless and agog while an Aboriginal woman emerges out of her workplace to throw a jacket over her naked body. These men have used and abused women’s bodies for so long that it’s ingrained in their culture – boys will be boys, larrikins will be larrikins – that when confronted with one in such a raw and emotionally human state they are awestruck. It’s a powerful sequence that takes everything that Farrant’s screenplay is attempting to say about society’s treatment of women, indigenous people, sexuality and the land as destructive and clueless and manifests it in such a visually and dramatically impactful way that it has stayed with me, and will likely stay with me for some time.

Despite the power of that particular scene and the performance of Kidman that crescendos in the dying sunset of the film’s final passages, Strangerland’s final act is still somewhat bungled in terms of its pacing. Hardly a new issue with Australian film as Farrant is clearly trying to leave a lasting impression of mood rather than a satisfying narrative conclusion, although the promise of the previously raised concept of mysticism isn’t fully delivered upon either. Likewise, the character of Lily is clearly one that we’ve seen before, most prominently in Rachel Ward’s Beautiful Kate (this could almost be a sequel), although her naff teen poetry is comically on point (“Their marriage is a farce / such a pain in the arse”, for instance). Still, I found so much to admire in the glowing, dusty cinematography of P.J. Dillon, Keefus Ciancia’s haunting music and the performances of Kidman, Hugo Weaving and Lisa Flanagan that I didn’t mind much at all. I was deeply impressed by Strangerland and likely for many of the reasons that others have not.

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