MICHAEL BODEY ON THE ENIGMA OF NICOLE KIDMANN
Nicole Kidman explores the depths of amnesia and the boundaries of human faith in her latest film role, writes Michael Bodey
NICOLE Kidman plays a victim in the film Before I Go to Sleep. In the humble British adaptation of SJ Watson’s bestselling novel of the same name, the Australian actress plays a woman suffering anterograde amnesia, a condition whereby a person is incapable of creating new memories: she wakes every day with no knowledge of who she is.
Her character, however, is not your standard on-screen victim; and Kidman is not your standard actress.
Her every role is parsed and assessed, given meaning when perhaps there is none. Even a performance in a simple three-hander such as Before I Go to Sleep will be over-analysed for inflection, innuendo and insight.
Simply enough, Kidman says she was attracted to the film because she knew its director, Rowan Joffe, the director of Brighton Rock. (Joffe is also the son of director Roland.) “(I) just connected to the universal theme of a man controlling every part of a woman’s world and her having to fight her way out of that,” she says.
Kidman says she was intrigued by the internal struggles in this film: Christine’s need for her husband (Colin Firth’s Ben) and how that contrasts with the husband relishing “complete control over every aspect of her life”.
“Control is a really fascinating subject for a movie,” she says. “And that’s what this is, it’s a film about that and identity, obviously.”
Surely people will read between the lines of that explanation to extrapolate something from Kidman’s personal life (gutlessly, this reporter fails to explicitly mention her nine-year marriage to Tom Cruise)?
“Oh, they shouldn’t,” the 47-year-old responds, perhaps disingenuously, perhaps deftly deflecting to the present. “It’s got nothing to do with that. If they read between the lines, no. In terms of my life now, no. I have the most incredibly generous man (husband Keith Urban), and after what I’ve just been through the last month ... (he is an) extraordinary partner. I’m just so grateful to him for being able to carry me through.”
The past month has been a period of grieving following the death of Kidman’s father, Antony, a prominent Sydney clinical psychologist.
Her willingness to help promote this film during such a time is admirable; Kidman feels that adult dramas such as Before I Go to Sleep need every assistance to find an audience if they are to survive, let alone thrive.
Nevertheless, she is happy she can express some gratitude for such a generous response to her father’s passing.
“It’s been rough but it was so nice to see how many people knew him,” she says. “He was an amazing man.”
A small mercy, if it can be called such, is her present hiatus following a period of intense screen work that has included recent high-profile offerings The Railway Man and Grace of Monaco.
Before I Go to Sleep is the least glamorous of the lot. The tight tale is captured in an intense fashion stylistically and Kidman is in every scene. She relished the idea of a thriller focused on a female, with its twists and turns shown through her perspective.
“That is just very rare these days,” Kidman says. “And I also just like the idea of doing these things straight to camera and playing with time, and the perception of time, and our identity based on what we know and remember,” she adds. “I know that has been dealt with before in movies but it’s rare that you get to play it all out with very little dialogue and just with emotions.”
Kidman’s performance is raw. Her character begins to video herself each morning on the urging of her psychologist, Mark Strong’s Dr Nash.
Kidman is clearly not wearing much, if any, make-up in the straight-to-camera shots. Her cinematographer Ben Davis (with whom she will work again next month on Genius, Michael Grandage and John Logan’s adaptation of A. Scott Berg’s book) told her he would shoot it “really, really stark and a lot of it will just be close-ups on your face”. “I really like that,” she adds. And the actress has no qualms seeing the unadulterated version of herself on screen
“I step into the character and I try not to edit myself in terms of performance,” she says.
“And that is why they always say an actor can never be a control freak. The ones that should not be actors because you’ve got to be completely willing to move and change and morph and allow somebody else to morph and mould your performance as well, because you’re not in the editing room, you don’t choose the way the film looks, you don’t choose the shots, all you do is provide the character.”
That is the curious part of a screen actor’s life. In many ways they are helpless. No matter how competent, there can always be an editor, director, lighting person, producer or cinematographer who can manipulate their performance. A curious irony flowing from that fact is fame demonstrably does turn some successful actors into control freaks.
“I don’t think that’s healthy,” Kidman says. “And I suppose as I get older, I get more abandoned with that. And you live and die on it.”
Case in point is her performance in this year’s release, Grace of Monaco. She was good, she looked stunning, and the film about the tail end of Grace Kelly’s life had its assets but Olivier Dahan’s direction and Arash Amel’s screenplay were not among them.
Before I Go to Sleep has worked well already in its British homeland, which Kidman notes is
I LIKE PRODUCING BUT IT’S NOT ALL I WANT TO DO … I DON’T LIKE DOING IT WHEN YOU HAVE TO FIGHT STUDIOS
important for smaller adult dramas. This kind of film is becoming harder to make and harder to find a space for in cinemas.
“That’s why you have to make them quickly, you don’t get a lot of time to shoot them and you do them on a certain budget and you don’t get paid as an actor, and you all just go ‘ OK, well this is what it is’,” she says.
“But that’s OK, that is what it is now and at least you can still get them made.
“To get Before I Go to Sleep made was a big deal and it’s done well, which is good, so it stands a chance to find its own way.
“It doesn’t have the massive support of a huge studio but I think storywise it’s strong. So I hope it finds its audience and that way we can keep getting these things made in this independent financing model.”
Similarly, the success of another collaboration with Firth earlier this year (and last), the Australian World War II drama The Railway
Man, was “a relief” to Kidman in the sense that it justified the belief she and others held that there would be an audience for a bracing and emotional war memoir.
“They did a really great job on that because
they really knew who the audience was and they found the audience,” she says.
Kidman will be in front of audiences consistently during the next 12 months, with the preChristmas release of comedy Paddington —a total change of pace — and next year’s releases of her portrayal of adventurer Gertrude Bell for Werner Herzog in Queen of the Desert, Kim Farrant’s Australian thriller Strangerland and the film she only recently wrapped, The Family
Fang, Jason Bateman’s comic drama adapted from Kevin Wilson’s novel.
“Yeah, I’m schizophrenic in my artistic choices right now,” she says, laughing. “But I can explain them all; I know why I choose them.”
Strangerland fulfilled a long-held desire to return to Australia “and do something I felt was unusual but was primarily a woman’s story”.
Paddington was merely “whimsical and fun” and “my kids got to learn about Paddington Bear”. Genius, the tale of Max Perkins’s time as an editor working with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others, enthused her creative side, and she took on The Family Fang as a producer. It is her first producing role since 2010’s Rab
bit Hole, although she recently bought the rights with Reese Witherspoon to Big Little
Lies, the comic novel about three mums of kindergarten kids.
“I like producing but it’s not all I want to do,” she says. “I like doing it when it’s easy. I don’t like doing it when you have to fight studios and struggle and try to convince people the material’s good, because then it becomes like hitting your head against a wall.”
The business side of production doesn’t “enthral” her, but the ability to support others does. For instance, Wilson was a writer from Tennessee (where she lives) and she told him: “I reckon I can get the film made for you.”
“It’s never easy but you can find people now independently to finance things that are passionate,” Kidman says. “That’s what’s exciting. There’s a whole different way to make movies now that’s outside the box and that’s what I enjoy.”
Before I Go to Sleep is open nationally.
Kidman filming a scene for
Strangerland at Broken Hill earlier this year
Clockwise from main picture, Nicole Kidman at Cannes this year; with Colin Firth in Before I Go to Sleep; with Firth in The
Railway Man’s Wife; and in Grace of Monaco