Nicole Kidman is the most interesting movie star Australia has ever flung out into the world, and here’s why: she is a true risk-taker.
According to the Internet Movie Database, she has 89 credits as an actress, 19 projects in development (often doubling as producer), each different than the previous, showing she refuses to be pigeon-holed. Is she a fine dramatic actress? Yes, she has the Oscar to prove it. Can she hack it in a comedy? You bet, she’s held her own alongside Will Ferrell. Do we still believe her in a grungy indie film? Sometimes; the thing is, she’s still doing them.
This is an actor unlike her peers. She’s forever taking us to unexpected places. Consider Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett: like Kidman, both are in their fifties, both international exports, both Academy Award winners. Flick through their filmography and you won’t find either of them straying far from what they, and we, know they can do. Crowe and Blanchett rarely take on characters that surprise us, appear in indies or work with first-time directors. Neither has made a commitment to working more with women filmmakers, unlike Kidman.
The most exciting thing about Kidman is she never knows what she’s going to do next, or if she’ll quite pull it off. Sometimes she does (To Die For, The Paperboy, Moulin Rouge), sometimes she doesn’t (Grace of Monaco, Australia, Days of Thunder). She’s a true artist, finding the most challenging projects and giving everything to them. She’s dedicated to expanding her practice with new directors and new ways of telling stories on film. Not every painting by Van Gogh was a masterpiece, so why should every film with Kidman be a winner?
Her filmography shows us time and time again the trust she puts into the process of filmmaking and the commitment she has as an actor to trying new things. Here is a selection of films that show how unwilling she is to tread celluloid water.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
The story goes that Baz Luhrmann sent Kidman a bunch of flowers to the stage door of the Donmar Warehouse in London where she was performing in a play. The card Luhrmann penned offered her the part of Satine in Moulin Rouge! ‘She sings, she dances, she dies.’ During the six-month shoot, Kidman broke two ribs and damaged her knees singing and dancing for the first time on film. She trusted in Luhrmann and gave an iconic performance, earning her first Academy Award nomination.
Lars Von Trier is a notoriously difficult director, who claimed to have written Dogville on a two-week drug binge. He wrote the part of Grace specifically for Kidman after reading her say she’d like to work with him in an interview. After Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, Kidman must have known the filming might be difficult, yet also could reap artistic rewards. The film was shot completely on a Swedish soundstage with sets more suited to theatre than celluloid and Kidman was isolated from her co-stars to reflect her character’s journey – conditions only a true artist would surrender to.
A romantic comedy with Nora Ephron, based on a hit 1960s television show, co-starring Will Ferrell wouldn’t seem like an obvious choice. By 2005, Kidman had won an Oscar for role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours and had her pick of scripts. Yet, she wanted to have some fun and took a chance with this quirky revisiting of the classic witch-out-of-water script from Ephron and her sister Delia Ephron. Fifteen years after its release, it’s anything but the ‘unmitigated disaster’ the New York Times called it. It shows Kidman having fun and working in a genre she hasn’t spent enough time in.
It’s depressingly remarkable when a home-grown movie star comes back and makes a small independent Australian film. Remarkable, because it so rarely happens. Depressing for the industry, because the wattage of a Kidman, Blanchett, Crowe or Jackman can attract more money and a strong cast to a film. This is evidenced here by Kidman’s commitment to first-time feature director Kim Farrant, collecting a stellar cast including Joseph Fiennes (in full Australian accent) and Hugo Weaving. Kidman gives a wrenching performance as a mother of a missing daughter in a film that will take you through the ringer.
Director Kim Farrant on the 5 reasons she had to make Strangerland
Strangerland airs on SBS World Movies on Sunday 22 August at 8.30pm.
Kidman is most comfortable on screen when she’s playing an Australian. It’s as though without having to deal with a foreign accent she can access the character more deeply. Well on its way to becoming an Australian classic, Lion tells the story of Indian–Australian Saroo Brierley’s incredible search to find his birth family in India. Kidman as his mother Sue is the emotional heart of the film and far from being the usual background mother a character like this could have been, Kidman’s close relationship with the real Sue Brierley imbued her character with a deep and compelling complexity.
Lion airs on SBS World Movies on Sunday 29 August at 8.30pm. Lion is also now streaming at SBS On Demand.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)
Another thing Kidman has made obvious in her later career, is that she’s willing to be part of an ensemble. How to Talk to Girls at Parties doesn’t belong to Kidman’s Boadicea, an elder in a Neil Gaiman-imagined eighties Punk scene. Watching the film, it’s difficult to see how a huge star like Kidman would agree to do a relatively small part like this. Reading the credits, looking back at Kidman’s choices, it’s obvious: this film is packed with significant talent and artists who push the boundaries. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell (who she’d worked with previously on Rabbit Hole) and co-starring Elle Fanning, Ruth Wilson and Matt Lucas, its ambition and scope are big.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Before this film had even hit movie theatres, women’s magazines delighted in publishing snaps of Kidman’s ‘transformation’ into the very damaged detective, Erin Bell, that she plays in Destroyer, directed by Karyn Kusama. Stripped of her long strawberry blonde hair and her ageless complexion, Kidman as Bell is all freckles, mousey hair and dangerous backstory. She stalks the streets of LA in a way that suggests to us Kidman is delighting in digging into a character so far from her own experience. Destroyer is elevated by Kidman and the cast she brings with her, and it highlights Kidman’s commitment to working with women filmmakers who are willing to take on gritty.
Destroyer is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
SBS World Movies puts the spotlight on Nicole Kidman on Sunday nights in August.
The Railway Man
*Screened on Sunday 8 August at 8.30pm, and now streaming at SBS On Demand
The Killing of a Sacred Deer on Sunday 15 August at 8.30pm.