You may have noticed that the big movie for this Christmas period is The Golden Compass, a $90 million adaptation of the first volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
It’s got talking bears, witches on broomsticks and Nicole Kidman, as the film’s villain, Mrs Coulter. It’s the best performance in a film that has many surprisingly smart casting choices (Tom Courtenay, Daniel Craig, Jim Carter, Derek Jacobi), despite its rather hamfisted handling of the source material.
Kidman’s Mrs Coulter is glacial, controlling; a Hitchcock femme fatale channelling the soul of the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s a relief, after having been stuck on autopilot for what now seems like an eternity, to see her act again.
The same is true of Margot At The Wedding, Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to the brilliant Squid And The Whale, which Kidman excels in. It’s something of a disappointment, then, to report that Kidman’s performance is pretty much the only thing to recommend this film.
Like Wes Anderson, with whom he co-wrote The Life Aquatic, Baumbach’s primary inspiration seems to be the dysfunctional family unit. The Squid & The Whale was a largely autobiographical take on his own parents’ break up, with sympathetic performances from Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, and a witty, literate script. He revisits the idea of families falling apart here, but this is an ugly, mean and sour film.
The problem — and it’s a pretty big one — is that all the characters are utterly unlikeable, toxic and monstrous. There’s Margot (Kidman), a short story writer with passive-agressive issues. She’s married to another writer, Jim (John Turturro) but having an affair with another writer Dick (Ciaran Hinds). She and Jim have a son, Claude (Zane Pais), who she oscillates between being cruel and kind to. She has a sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Lee), who she resents because their mother gave her the family home. Oh, and she hates Pauline’s fiance, unemployed artist and all-round slob, Malcolm (Jack Black).
Basically, it involves a lot of people shouting at each other, squabbling, being catty behind each other’s backs and generally undergoing intensely emotional and psychological meltdowns.
It is, as you might have guessed by now, pretty grim viewing.
I’ve nothing against excoriating family crack-up dramas, but Margot and co are vile, self-absorbed, selfish, vicious, narcissistic, cold people, their constant fights and arguments utterly draining.
With such a horrid cast opf characters, it’s pretty hard to find any reason to like this film. But it is easy to admire Kidman’s brilliant performance. Margot is an absolute monster; and, as her marriage drifts further to the rocks, the suggestion that she is herself beginning to suffer some kind of mental destabilisation presents itself. We see her popping Valiums, drinking wine pretty constantly throughout, her face subtely distorting itself with minor tics, her eyes widening, her voice pitching that bit higher, her moods drifting precariously from loving and concerned to spiteful, almost bipolar.
As a performance, it reminds you quite why Kidman is a great actress. After the dross of The Stepford Wives, Bewitched and The Invasion, it’s brilliant to see her engaging with the kind of work that really stretches her talents. Think back to the peaks of that filmography — Malice, To Die For, Moulin Rouge, The Others, The Hours, Dogville, Cold Mountain, Birth — and you can see an actress with a formidable range, pretty fearless in her decisions.
For all its many faults, Margot At The Wedding is, at least, reassuring evidence that, when she’s working with the right material, Kidman is still the finest actress of her generation.
Margot At The weddings opens on February 29