Why I Adore… Nicole Kidman

By Glenn Dunks

Kidmaniac
Kid●may●nee●ack
noun
1.
A person who has a great craving or enthusiasm for the work of Australian actress Nicole Kidman: “Glenn is such a Kidmaniac. He sees all of her work and thinks she should have won at least three Academy Awards by now.

You won’t find the above in the Oxford English Dictionary any time soon, but trust me when I tell you that we’re out there. You may not want to acknowledge us, but we’re there just waiting for you to admit “Yeah, I actually did like Australia,” which is when we’ll make our move and give you a detailed rundown of why Nicole Kidman is “the greatest actor of her generation.”

Those are actually words that I have found myself uttering a lot these days. As Kidman charges through 2012 like a bull in a china shop, her presence in the culture known as pop has reached fever pitch. Last month’s 65th annual Cannes Film Festival saw two Kidman performances – one of which sent Twitter into a yellow frenzy, if you know what I mean – and with several high profile titles within the next couple of years, she is very much “BACK!” on the public radar after years of being punished and shunned by people who have no idea how the movie industry works. (She had Botox you say? It’s as if she’s trying to remain young so she can keep working and not retire before the age of 40!)

Kidman loves burrowing into a character that counteracts social expectations of what a woman should be, and she does so with external strength, dignity and poise.

“But really?” I hear you say. “The best actor of her generation?” Why yes, she most certainly is. And not just because she has the resumé to back up such a statement. No, but because she represents everything that any actor, male or female, should endeavour to be. You just try convincing yourself that your favourite actor could ever go from winning an Academy Award for playing Virginia Woolf in a British period weepie one day, to filming a brutal three-hour Lars von Trier drama set on a barren stage in Denmark, where the actors have to pick fruit from invisible trees. Just try. Still, if you need me to go into further detail then I shall, but only because you asked so politely. No need to get all pissy about it!

Sorry, that article just makes me laugh.

Where does one exactly begin when discussing Nicole? There’s kitsch value to be found in watching the plump-faced, frizzy-haired young Nicole star in Brian Trenchard-Smith’s somewhat-camp classic, BMX Bandits (home of the best sound effects editing in an Australian film ever, fact!). But I’m sure she’d scrunch her face up in horror if anybody ever suggested it.. The Nicole we all know really started on the small screen – an arena she has returned to this year with Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012) to positive reviews – where she received praise and accolades for work on Vietman (1987) and Ken Cameron’s Bangkok Hilton (1989), movies she still discusses in international interviews to this day. Of course, those works and others like them are hard to come by on DVD, which means that sadly few people have seen them.

If her early TV work, coupled with a tenacious starring role at just 18 years of age in Philip Noyce’s at-sea thriller, Dead Calm (1989), had suggested great talent as a dramatic actress, then her role in the film industry satire Emerald City (1988) and as an almost-mean girl in Flirting (1991) announced she also had a deft hand at comedy. Emerald City, for which Kidman was nominated for an AFI Award as Best Supporting Actress, features dialogue about the state of the industry and the plight of actors that perfectly mirrors Kidman’s own outlook. Just watch this video from the 50 second mark and try not to see the parallels.

As boarding school queen bee Nicola in Flirting, Kidman eschews the character’s potential to be little more than a hurdle for the lead characters (Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton) to overcome in their quest for love. Her icy – that descriptor began early in her career, it’s fair to say – performance is filled with delightfully comical vocal deliveries and mannerisms. Her superior, almost regal, posture featured here would go on to become a mainstay of her more cold-hearted characters (see Marisa Coulter in The Golden Compass (2007) and Margot in Margot at the Wedding (2007)).

Her work in Flirting is even more impressive than that of Emerald City. With a deep-felt monologue towards the film’s end instantly adding layers of pathos to Kidman’s performance, Flirting becomes a great early example of what Kidman would go on to perfect. She is stunning at playing women (or, in this case, a girl) who grapple with the balance of the internal and the external, not succumbing to the role that society expects.

Consider her role as Becca in Rabbit Hole (2010), another perfect example of this very issue. Kidman loves burrowing into a character that counteracts social expectations of what a woman should be, and she does so with external strength, dignity and poise. Even if she secretly wants to shed this skin and show to the world that she is as vulnerable as the next person, her characters choose to expose their feelings in private. In Flirting it is only Thandie Newton’s Thandiwe Adjewa who knows the true secret behind her character. In Rabbit Hole it’s a devastating breakdown on the side of the road as she witnesses the teenage boy (a superb Miles Teller) who was responsible for her four-year-old’s death heading off to his senior prom, something she will never see her own child do.

As her characters struggle to act publicly in ways that people expect her to – girly and frilly, highly strung, emotional, on the verge of a crying meltdown – so too does Kidman. So frequently described as “cold” and “icy” by detractors because she all but refuses to adhere to Hollywood standards of what an A-lister should be like. She has admitted to taking on roles dictated by her stardom that she found little artistic merit to, but no other actor of Kidman’s stature has such an impressive ratio of daring, auteur-driven films to multiplex fare. When she should have been making a sequel to her Sandra Bullock witchy romcom Practical Magic (1998), she was working with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Her reluctance to discuss her family life, her willingness to dive headfirst into the creative abyss with directors she respects despite the high risk of failure (Steven Shainberg’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) for instance), a public image of shy awkwardness, and a healthy dose of localised Tall Poppy Syndrome make her an ‘unlovable’ person and, as sad as it may be, likeability is something which lot of mainstream audiences think makes for a great actor.

In quick succession Kidman demonstrated her gift for dark humour, literary romance, sexual devilishness, coquettish delight and femme fatale sizzle.

Kidman didn’t always possess the chilly and calculated persona perceived by so many today. With the release of Dead Calm in 1989 came international exposure and the promise of a Hollywood career. Her marriage to Days of Thunder (1990) and Far and Away (1992) co-star, Tom Cruise, resulted in her career being put on the backburner. She worked – semi-arthouse Billy Bathgate (1991), domestic thriller Malice (1993), superhero flick Batman Forever (1995), the sort of roles people expect from an emerging young star – but the uneasily pigeonholed actress was finding her American work was not rising to the standard set by her Australian work.

It was in 1995 that saw Kidman’s career took its greatest leap forward. By being cast in Gus van Sant’s cruelly satirical To Die For as power-hungry Suzanne Stone Maretto, Kidman finally unleashed the creative energy that had been sidelined by marriage and family. It’s a fiercely devoted performance by Kidman, and one that 18 years has failed to diminish. Openly sexual, villainous and morally unhinged, the role seemed to have clicked something within Kidman. Her desire to emerge out of the shadow of her movie-star husband and away from her role as glorified Hollywood arm-candy, to work with directors for whom the auteur theory was seemingly devised became more and more obvious. She won her first Golden Globe Award for her portrayal in To Die For and her first real taste of artistic integrity on a grand scale.

With the creative cobwebs well and truly blown away thanks to that guffaw-inducing dark comedy, Kidman immediately embarked upon a sort of global whistlestop tour of famous auteurs that continues to this very day. Porcelain-fine in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996) as, yet again, a woman confined by society’s expectations; eyes so piercing as Tom Cruise’s brittly domestic wife on the periphery of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999); an all-singing all-dancing dying courtesan in Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece Moulin Rouge! (2001); the tormented, yet simplistically hopeful, mobster daughter of Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2004); a widow confronted with reincarnation in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2005); the unflinchingly dry and toxic Margot in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding (2007). The list goes on: Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter, 2005), John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit Hole), Lee Daniels (The Paperboy, 2012)… even some of her disasters were taken upon good faith in directors like Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Invasion, 2007), Nora Ephron (Bewitched, 2005), and The Stepford Wives (Frank Oz, 2004). She was even set to work with famed Chinese director, Wong Kar-wai on a remake of The Lady from Shanghai, just one of many long-gestating projects of Kidman’s that never got off the ground.

Kidman will no doubt continue to suffer a career that compares eerily well with those of the golden era like, for instance, Katherine Hepburn, who was once denounced as “box office poison”. Her continued perseverance with the weird and the wonderful of cinema will surely continue to confuse as many as it awes…

These roles, complex and layered each, are all starkly different and brilliant. In quick succession Kidman demonstrated her gift for dark humour, literary romance, sexual devilishness, coquettish delight and femme fatale sizzle. Still, by 2000 she’d still not quite become a name among the greats. Cue 2001 and what can surely be described as one of the greatest ever coming out parties of all time. Descending the ceiling of Baz Luhrmann’s glitter-bombed, hyperactive, modernised rethink of the classic Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris, didn’t just bring with it a worldwide star, but a performance that deserves to rank as one of the most definitively cinematic ever given. As Satine, the lovestruck courtesan emerging in jewels to “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, Kidman helped usher in a new dawn for movie musicals and in a double-whammy alongside Alejando Amenábar’s haunted house tale The Others proved that 2001 – not to mention the press revolving around her divorce and those infamous “I can wear heels now!” comments – was The Year of Nicole. She’d successfully blended the art with the mainstream and it was glorious. An Academy Award soon followed for The Hours, although it’s telling that she finally won for a performance that was very good, yes, but hardly the sort of artistic stretch that had come before and after.

Kidman’s penchant for taking roles that sit outside the preconceived box of what an “American Sweetheart” should take, proved the public love affair with this goofy, lanky, somewhat exotic beauty was short-lived. Misjudged romcoms and a bombastic epic, Cold Mountain (2004), brought about a swift end to Kidman’s reign as Hollywood’s highest paid and most sympathetic star. Still, arguably her two greatest achievements followed in arguably her two most difficult films.

As muse to Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, she took to the cinematic stage of Dogville (2004) less than 24 hours after accepting her Oscar. Von Trier calls upon Kidman to be the victim of horrible crimes and, by film’s end, make a devastating moral decision, which is hardly the stuff of megastars. Playing Grace, she of whispery voice and persona as fragile as vintage lace, Kidman is truly astonishing. It is quite literally a performance the likes of which we have never seen before. It’s just not the thing for actors of Kidman’s stature to do, not now, not ever. Contrary to what Heidi Klum has to say, fashion isn’t the only arena where “one day you’re in, the next day you’re out” is true. For decades actors, especially women, have been forced to navigate the whims of public discourse and the idea that one failure can send you back to the dole queue.

If Kidman were doing this sort of bravely unflinching work in films with no artistic merit and made by filmmakers with no vision then I’m sure I wouldn’t be talking about her the way I am now, but the fact of the matter is that when many other so-called great actors are out there taking work with little element of risk (ahem, Meryl Streep), Kidman has been stepping out of the comfort zone for nearly two decades now and she reached the apex (for me, anyway) one year later with the haunting, honey-lit identity horror of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2005). Sumptuously made – Alexandre Desplat’s score is perhaps the greatest in several decades – this Kubrickian adult fairy tale about a widow and the boy who claims to be her reincarnated husband is not only Kidman’s finest work to date, but a truly awe-inspiring achievement. To try and find a single scene with as much intensity and heart-breaking, gut-wrenching power as the single-shot opera sequence is to embark on a foolhardy mission. That single close-up of Nicole’s Anna, as she quietly contemplates the very real possibilities that have been laid before her, is like witnessing a cinematic miracle.

While it seemed everybody was turning their back on Kidman, we Kidmaniacs remained steadfastly devoted. A powerhouse performance in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, a deliciously evil turn in Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass and a dreamily nostalgic turn as a glamourous Italian movie star in Rob Marshall’s Nine kept the flame burning. The new decade has brought about a newfound appreciation that has seen many come back around to my side. Oscar-nominated for Rabbit Hole, and working with such diverse and exciting directors as Lee Daniels (The Paperboy), Chan-wook Park (Stoker) and Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man, her first local production since Luhrmann’s Australia (2008)).

Kidman will no doubt continue to suffer a career that compares eerily well with those of the golden era like, for instance, Katherine Hepburn, who was once denounced as “box office poison”. Her continued perseverance with the weird and the wonderful of cinema will surely continue to confuse as many as it awes and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Part of the reason why I adore her so much is that she is so unafraid to go where others wouldn’t. If everybody suddenly became a Kidmaniac like me in the blink of an eye then it would mean she had become conventional and who wants that?

About Glenn Dunks: Growing up in Geelong, to the west of Melbourne, his love of cinema began young and remembers Dick Tracy in 1990 as his first time in a movie theatre. He began writing first at his blog, Stale Popcorn, and eventually for websites Trespass Magazine and as the film editor for Onya Magazine, a web zine dedicated exclusively to Australian content. His writing has appeared in The Big Issue, Encore, The Melbourne International Film Festival, and he has been heard on JOY 94.9FM. Apart from Kidmania, Glenn has a passion for Australian, queer and New York cinema.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City.  Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, and most recently Briony Kidd explains why she loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ’Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.

Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick dip into the reviews of two recently released Australian feature films: Black & White & Sex and Any Questions for Ben?. Please note these do not reflect the views of the AFI | AACTA. We’re aiming to represent opinions and views from a variety of sources, and you’ll make up your own mind, of course!

Black & White & Sex

Billed as ‘an intimate film about sex’, Black & White & Sex was released in March on just a few screens in Melbourne and Sydney by John L. Simpson’s Titan View. The film previously screened at the 2011 Sydney and Brisbane film festivals, and also screened in official selection at the 2012 Rotterdam Film Festival.

Written and directed by John Winter (who has previously produced films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence and Paperback Hero), Black & White & Sex is a film within a film, following a largely unseen documentary filmmaker (Matthew Holmes) who gets more than he bargained for when he interviews a sex worker who goes by the name of ‘Angie’. Intriguingly, this character is played by eight different actresses (Katherine Hicks, Anya Beresdorf, Valerie Bader, Roxane Wilson, Michelle Vergara Moore, Dina Panozzo, Saskia Burmeister, Maia Thomas). Filmed in black and white, and with occasional split screens, this is an independent film in every way.

Here’s the trailer:

Andrew L. Urban and Louise Keller, over at Urban Cinefile, are both extremely positive about Black & White & Sex, with Urban describing it as “bravura filmmaking on a taboo subject.” He praises the performances of the actresses, the ironic choice of black and white cinematography (ironic because the subjects under discussion are anything but black and white), and the manner in which the film questions assumptions and hypocrisies within our culture around sex and prostitution.

Keller also praises the work as “an ambitious, fearless film” and enjoys the “titillating dialogue” and “witty banter” as well as the performances of the eight very different women, who respond to the filmmaker’s questions – “every question anyone ever wanted to ask a prostitute.” Keller finds the film surprisingly sweet and playful.

Peter Galvin, writing on the SBS Film website, agrees that the film is ambitious and experimental, and that the acting is fine, but wrestles with the question of whether the film actually becomes the very thing it aims to counter – a stereotypical representation of the prostitute as cultural cipher. Galvin also finds the dialogue clichéd, writing that “most of the talk has the dry, pre-digested, lifeless feel of a self-help manual – it’s all catchphrases and aphorisms.”

Writing for Variety (login required), Richard Kuipers describes the film as offering “a full-tilt examination of the sex-for-sale biz that effectively challenges stereotypes and is well served by dashes of droll humor.” Kuipers sees only a few “flat dialogue stretches” and praises the “uniformly excellent acting” and the “outstanding black-and-white HD widescreen imagery by lenser Nicola Daley.” He predicts, however, that the film will probably appeal more to festival audiences than to mainstream ones.

Over on the ABC’s At the Movies, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton agree that Black & White & Sex is “imaginative”, “brave”, superbly acted, and “within its limitations, very stylishly done”. They concur on a three and a half star rating.

Want to read other reviews of Black & White & Sex? More can be found here:

Any Questions For Ben?

A romantic comedy from Working Dog, the team behind previous Australian hit features The Dish and The Castle, Any Questions For Ben? was released in Australia on 9 February 2012 through Roadshow Films. Written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch, and also directed by Sitch, the film stars Josh Lawson as a smart, good-looking Lothario suffering a quarter-life crisis, brought about by his encounter with a beautiful United Nations lawyer (Rachael Taylor) who makes him question the meaning and purpose of his life.   A supporting cast includes Rob Carlton as Ben’s father, Lachy Hulme as his mentor, and Daniel Henshall, Felicity Ward and Christian Clark as his best buddies.

Here’s the trailer:

Simon Miraudo reviews the film on QuickFlix and finds it has “an easy, low-stakes charm, and is buoyed by its very talented cast of performers.” Miraudo praises Lawson as a likable lead who “deserves much of the praise for making sympathetic a character who could be considered the poster child for ‘first world problems’” – though he wonders if a more understated and less slick style may have been more appropriate to the film’s material. While declining to include it in the same “pantheon of Australian films” as The Castle and The Dish, Miraudo declares it it “a sweet, unassuming and occasionally very funny film.”

Likewise, Matthew Pejkovic of Matt’s Movie Reviews enjoys “a funny and insightful look into Gen X pressures in an increasingly fast paced world,” and has more praise for Lawson’s natural comedic timing and ability to depict Ben as sympathetic despite the fact that he’s “swimming in money, opportunity and women.”

Richard Gray of The Reel Bits  gives another positive review of the film, and finds Ben to be a character whose struggle to find meaning in modern life makes him “just as much of a local hero as Darryl Kerrigan.” Gray applauds Lawson in the lead role, and also enjoys Rachael Taylor’s “most naturalistic performance to date.”

In stark contrast, Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster is scathing of the film, failing to see any effective comedy or any chemistry between Lawson and Taylor. He wishes more effort had been made to capture the subtleties of the Melbourne location and deplores the soundtrack “stuffed to the gills with top 50 bubblegum pop tracks.”

Sandra Hall, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald is gentler on the “bright and shiny piece of film-making,” but is also disappointed, finding its depiction of Melbourne akin to a tourism advertisement, and its music montages “a sign of desperation.” Hall is thankful there are no fart jokes, (as in Apatow comedies), but finds herself “nostalgic for Working Dog’s sharper days when they would surely have perpetrated all sorts of wickedness at Ben’s expense.”

Other reviews of Any Questions for Ben? can also be found here:

Did you see these films? What did you think? Feel free to comment below. Note that comments are subject to moderation. We’ll print them as long as they’re fit for polite company.

Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick taste of reviews of current release Australian feature films Blame and Sleeping Beauty. Please note these do not reflect the views of the AFI. We’re aiming to represent opinions and views from various sources, and you’ll make up your own mind, of course!

Blame

Blame Key Art AustraliaReleased nationally in Australia on 16 June by Pack Screen, Blame premiered at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival (where it was a MIFF Premiere Fund film) and screened to some acclaim at festivals including Toronto and Chicago. Filmed and set in the foothills of Perth, the story centres on a group of young vigilantes intent on wreaking vengeance for a sexual betrayal.

Directed by Michael Henry, and produced by Ryan Hodgson, Melissa Kelly and Michael Robinson, Blame stars a raft of fresh but familiar talent, including Sophie Lowe, Kestie Morassi, Damian de Montemas, Simon Stone, Mark Leonard Winter and Ashley Zukerman. Reviewing the film as part of the TIFF 2010 lineup, Twitch’s Todd Brown was particularly impressed by the actors, and by the opening sequences, but writes that the film is “[l]ong on cast and concept but slightly short on execution,” and that it “never quite manages to reach its full potential or really cash in on its premise”.  

Megan Lehmann, writing for The Hollywood Reporter (login required), calls Blame “a compact little thriller set in a remote corner of the Australian bushland,” and predicts that it will be a good calling card for its cast and crew. She singles out the stark piano-heavy score and DOP Torstein Dyrting’s lingering camera-work for special mention, with the only real criticism being a “generally tight script  [that] stumbles in the second act as the characters chase their tails for a while.”

Simon Miraudo, over at Quickflix sees in the film “brief flashes of brilliance that evoke Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie,” though ultimately, he argues, “it feels like a sincere tribute to Hitchcock and Christie, but not a modern-day companion piece.” Miraudo singles outs out performances by Damian de Montemas, Sophie Lowe and Kestie Morassi for special mention. Also seeing Hitchockian references in Blame, Peter Galvin (SBS Film) commends the way the audience’s sympathies are simultaneously engaged by both the victim and the perpetrators.

Leigh Paatsch, reviewing for the Herald Sun gives Blame three stars and writes that “[f]irst-time writer-director Michael Henry makes a little go a long way throughout, pushing an impressive young cast through a twisty, turny maze most viewers will be happy to get lost in.” Both David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz from the ABC’s At The Movies are similarly impressed with the film, agreeing with a three and a half star rating, and praising it as an intelligent low budget film that “punches above it’s weight.” 

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty key art AustraliaSleeping Beauty, an ‘erotic fairytale’ about a young woman, Lucy (Emily Browning), who sells her body in a particularly passive way, is shaping up to be one of those films that is dividing critics and audiences. This divisive tendency was evident at the film’s premiere screening in Official Competition at Cannes 2011 (you can see a table summarising critical responses from French critics at Cannes here), and the vigorous debates here at home continue the tendency. In fact, as Glenn Dunks argues, writing for Onya Magazine, perhaps “the discussion it has elicited from critics and audiences (domestic and international alike) is reason enough for [the film’s] existence.”

One of the most interesting and lateral responses to Sleeping Beauty is this one by Matt Riviera on his blog A Life in Film, where he engages not only with the film but with its critical and audience responses. (Riviera has meticulously compiled a table of Sydney critics’ responses to 2011 Sydney Film Festival offerings, including Sleeping Beauty, and you can see that film’s divisive effect evident in the chart here.)  

Anticipating that many viewers will be alienated and unmoved by the somewhat clinical tone of the film, Riviera notes that “[w]e are not encouraged to relate as much as to reflect on our position as voyeurs. In other words, we can look but cannot touch.” He goes on to offer a fascinating and unexpected reading of  the film as a metaphor for Australia’s passive relationship to its own beauty and international exploitation.

Over at Cinema Autopsy, Thomas Caldwell gives a more conventional review. Awarding Sleeping Beauty four stars, Caldwell admires writer/director Julia Leigh’s “well tuned sense of visual storytelling” and notes that the film’s cinematography (Geoffrey Simpson) and production design (Annie Beauchamp) evoke the work of Kubrick, Lynch and Greenaway. Caldwell also praises the “meticulous and minimalist sound design by Sam Petty”, and the “highly measured and controlled performance” of Emily Browning in the lead role.  Anticipating other viewers’ criticism of the film, he writes that “[o]n face value Sleeping Beauty may appear to be simply an arty exercise in film style and as a result will no doubt perplex and frustrate some audiences, particularly those expecting something more erotic or blatantly emotionally charged. However, like Lucy it contains something dark, complex, mysterious and, indeed, beautiful deep down below the surface.”

David Stratton, reviewing for At The Movies, called Sleeping Beauty “a handsomely made and quite haunting first feature” and gave the film three and a half stars. Stratton argued, however, that “while it’s often very impressive it’s also very cold and detached.” Andrew L. Urban is another such viewer, frustrated at what he perceives as the film’s coldness. At Urban Cinefile he writes: “I salute the unique vision, but I feel cheated that I felt so little emotion in a film that has such vast emotional potential.” Writing in the same space, Louise Keller declares Sleeping Beauty “a mesmerizing film and a stunning debut for Leigh, although the ending disappoints and leaves us adrift.”

Jim Schembri, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald gives the film backhanded praise, arguing that “the one thing you can’t say about Sleeping Beauty that you can about many other Australian arthouse films, is that it is boring. If anything, there’s something mesmerising about Lucy’s journey and in Browning’s deliberately passive, low-key performance, even if the whole shebang leads to frustration.” Leigh Paatsch, in the Herald Sun is not so kind, describing it as “prentious” and an “arthouse snoozer”. Variety’s Peter Debruge is similiarly unimpressed, criticising the film’s “frustratingly elliptical feel and lack of character insight.”

Over at the Guardian however, Peter Bradshaw seems to gain far greater insight into the “emotional seriousness” of Lucy’s character, praising Emily Browning’s “fierce and powerful performance.” Bradshaw also calls the film a “technically elegant” and “assured debut”, nevertheless finding it to be “no more than the sum of its parts”.

Clearly, the debate will continue to rage. What did you think?

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Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick taste of what some reviewers said about recently released Australian feature films. Please note that these do not reflect the views of the AFI; we’re aiming to represent just a smattering of opinions and views from various sources. You’ll make up your own mind, of course!

Mrs Carey’s Concert

Mrs Carey's Concert key artBob Connolly and Sophie Raymond’s observational documentary about a high school music teacher may well be the surprise Australian hit of the year. The self-distributed film, which opened this year’s BigPond Adelaide Film Festival, is not only performing well at the limited release box office (more than $500,000 to date), it’s also being universally praised by critics and reviewers. David Stratton and Margararet Pomeranz from At the Movies describe it as “a rounded and very satisfying film that is both hugely entertaining and incredibly inspirational,” giving it four and a half stars and four stars respectively. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Sandra Hall also gives Mrs Carey’s Concert four and a half stars, praising Connolly’s “patience and unobtrusiveness” which result in a film that’s “well worth every exhilarating minute.” The Age’s Jake Wilson  gives high praise, writing that Mrs Carey’s Concert “transcends its “inspirational” format to rank as the best Australian film so far this year.” Filmink’s Cara Nash calls the film “absorbing and revealing” and “nothing short of compelling”, using the Filmink ratings system to value the film at $17 out of a possible $20. Writing for Onya magazine, Glenn Dunks has only one qualm, observing that “a sequence in which Mrs Carey loses a folder of sheet music feels artificial and unnecessary.”  In the end however, he finds the film to be “a wonderful experience to witness.” (Interested in finding out more about Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond? Click through to read our recent interview with them.)

Mad Bastards

Mad Bastards key artFilmed and set within Indigenous communities  in the amazingly picturesque Kimberley region of WA, Mad Bastards impressed at Sundance where it premiered earlier this year. Directed by Brendan Fletcher, and featuring the musical talents of the Pigram Brothers (who also acted as producers on the film), Mad Bastards is a musical journey following three generations of Aboriginal men who find their way out of the cycle of violence. Thomas Caldwell, writing for The Big Issue magazine (review reproduced on the Cinema Autopsy blog) gave the film four stars and announced that “Mad Bastards is simply Australia’s most impressive film since Animal Kingdom.” Helen Garner, writing in the May 2011 edition of The Monthly writes that “Mad Bastards is a work of serious maturity and grace. It reminded me of something that Plato said about art – that it should be ‘like a wind from excellent places, bringing health.”

Writing for the SBS Film website, Michelle Orange found the musical interludes intrusive, arguing that director Brendan Fletcher’s “over-reliance on score sets up an avoidant rhythm that begins to feel like a lack of narrative confidence.” Ultimately though, Orange finds much to like about the film, and writes that in it’s final climactic scene, “the privileging of tableau over dialogue feels just right.” Quickflix critic Simon Miraudo gives Mad Bastards four out of five stars, and despite admitting to hating films which conclude with footage of real subjects, Miraudo acknowledges that it works here, and that “Mad Bastards is an involving tribute to – and exciting evolution of – Australian storytelling.”

Writing for the Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Jim Schembri awards Mad Bastards four and a half stars out of five, writing that it “bravely explores a host of hot-button issues with a deft blending of humour, sensitivity and often brutal frankness.” Andrew L. Urban over at Urban Cinefile writes that the film “understated in its redemptive message, much like Samson and Delilah was, and while it has a few clunky storytelling moments, it’s an engaging and touching film.”

Snowtown

Snowtown key artCertainly the most controversial Australian release of the year so far, Justin Kurzel’s feature directorial debut Snowtown is based on the brutal serial killings known as the ‘bodies in the barrels’ cases, which occurred in Adelaide in the 1990s. Winner of the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival’s Audience Award (where it had its Australian premiere) and selected for Critics’ Week at Cannes (where it received a special mention by the Jury President), Snowtown is currently dividing audiences and critics – though everyone seems to agree that Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography and Jed Kurzel’s musical score are beyond reproach. 

One of the most rapturous responses to the film surely came from Clem Bastow at The Vine, who awarded Snowtown five out of  five stars and wrote that despite its grimness, the film is “an incredible piece of cinema and a devastating, poetic work of storytelling.” Crikey blogger Luke Buckmaster over at Cinetology was similarly blown away, praising the “airtight sense of verisimilitude maintained by unwavering directorial focus,” and calling it the “most frightening Australian film ever made, and a great piece of art.”  

Both Louise Keller and Andrew L. Urban of Urban Cinefile commended the strong performances of the actors in the film and agreed that the film succeeded in creating an undeniably tense atmosphere, yet Keller’s admission that she ” left the cinema feeling repulsed and downtrodden at the sombre world depicted, from which not even a little piece of blue sky can be seen,” is one echoed my many viewers, including Helen Garner, who admitted in The Monthly that the film left her despairing and nauseated.  The Adelaide based Anders Wotzke of Cut Print Review commends director Justin Kurzel’s naturalistic direction, but argues that the grisly film “struggles to build an emotional rapport with its audience.” Both Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton from the ABC’s At the Movies  praised the impressive acting performances on screen, but found the setup confusing and worried at the film’s lack of “moral centre”. The debate continues, and audiences seem keen to check it out for themselves, with the film’s strong performance on the limited box office charts. (Interested in learning more about the actors in Snowtown? Click through to read our interviews with Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway and Louise Harris.)

Check out these films on the big screen now, while they’re in the cinemas, and feel free to drop back and leave your comments and opinions.

Next week, our Reviews Wrap will take in the crowdfunded film The Tunnel, available freely on torrent; Beck Cole’s Here I Am, and Mark Lewis’s 3D creature feature documentary Cane Toads: The Conquest.