**** (out of five)

Kim Farrant’s debut feature Strangerland has high ambitions. It wants to be associated with Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake In Fright, Walkabout and The Last Wave – great Australian films that explore the mysterious, creepy energy of Australia’s innards – the outback, and / or the regions that lie close to it.

It succeeds. Strangerland is a bold, extremely accomplished and confident first feature from director Kim Farrant and screenwriters Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons (it should be noted that Seres was the instigator of the story). It tackles fascinating and unique themes, the most provocative being, is sexuality an appropriate response to tragedy, trauma and grief?

Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes play the Parkers, the delicately disengaged parents of a pre-teen son and an all-too-teen girl (Maddison Brown, in a career-making debut). They’ve moved to a very isolated town for reasons that we will learn, and the move will decimate their lives.

Hugo Weaving plays a local cop who becomes deeply involved in their situation, and it’s the best role I’ve seen him in in ages. He’s just terrific, at ease and fluid, open and free, as a lanky, robust outback policeman who suddenly has a real case to deal with – along with the accompanying personalities. Given a wide-open landscape, a nice beard and a generous character, he flows, freely, givingly. It’s a great performance.

So is Kidman’s. She constantly needs to come back to Australia to give her best, it seems, and she does so here. It’s a cracker of a role and she gives it her all. Catherine Parker is a an extremely well-written character, driving the emotional subtleties of the film with fascinating contradictions. Kidman hits every note, and those notes entail some very challenging scenes. She dominates the film, and she should – it’s about her.

As Lily, the extremely present Maddison Brown makes an important feature debut. She carries the film’s first act off naturally, with the confidence of someone who is only just discovering what it means to be attractive, confident and skilful: there is connection here between actor and role. Joseph Fiennes, saddled with the least fleshed out of the major roles, is a terrific piece of casting: his otherness in this world (simply by being English) is deeply entwined with the currants of the film, and his surprising bursts of anger are unexpected for those of us who have pigeonholed him to Shakespeare In Love. Mayne Wyatt also gives an excellent, complex performance.

Strangerland is a terrific beast: it’s got a foot in each of the commercial and arthouse camps, and is entertaining in both. It knows exactly what it’s doing at each and every turn. It is assured, confident and well constructed. It is also gripping, thrilling, creepy and exciting. See it.

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