Graceful Grief: ‘Nicole Kidman 4-Film Collection’

I don’t know why this collection exists, but I’m glad it does. Great performer box sets make a little less sense than great director collections, on the whole, because watching a succession of movies by the same director typically yields a certain continuity of vision. Actors mostly take roles in movies made by others, so their careers tend more toward mish-mash. Comedy one summer; tragedy the following chill.

Though this Nicole Kidman DVD grab-bag tends toward tragedy, it’s otherwise no exception. There’s certainly mish-mash here: an indy production (2010’s Rabbit Hole), an Academy award-winning epic (2003’s Cold Mountain), a genre setpiece (The Others [2001]), and an arthouse movie (Lars von Trier’s gruesome 2003 Dogville). Besides starring Kidman and being fabulous movies all, these four titles otherwise have little in common, at least at first blush. So it’s iffy whether such a product will have broad commercial appeal. That said, by accident or design, these titles demonstrate certain commonalities of theme when taken in succession, almost as if Kidman had directed them, after all.

The supporting player in this quartet, Rabbit Hole, deals with an affluent couple who’ve passed eight months since losing their young son Danny in a freak traffic accident. Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) try vainly to process the grief that threatens their marriage, attending group therapy sessions and putting their house on the market to start a new life. No matter what they do, though, they’re haunted not so much by their mutual sorrows but the divergent ways they deal with them.

Howie cherishes Danny’s memory but wants to move on; he jealously archives videos of the child while dogging Becca with the idea of having another. She, instead, seems intent on obliterating all memory of Danny and at the same time rejecting any attempt to help her deal with her sadness.

Rabbit Hole (2010)

Mostly somber, Rabbit Hole has occasional streaks of black comedy, as when Howie and a friend share a bowl of weed during an ebb between group therapy sessions, only to be mortified later when the self-pitying speech of a melancholy ex-father gives them the giggles. The movie also tries to be comforting in parts, mostly through a subplot involving parallel universes that’s evidently meant to give Becca license to imagine an alternate reality in which her family is still whole; surely a reassuring notion for anyone who’s lost a loved one.

The movie’s heart’s not really in it, though. There’s a poverty of thought behind the details of this multiverse idea and ultimately it comes off as a facile, trite way of denying death’s finality without resorting to religion.

Cold Mountain (2003)

If you enjoy lingering grief and loss laid aside dubious and fleeting comfort, look no further than Cold Mountain, Kidman’s big-budget Oscar bid. Loosely adapted from the inconsolable novel by Cormac McCarthy, Cold Mountain begins with a sprawling, bloody Civil War battle and only gets more depressing from there as Inman (Jude Law), a love-struck Confederate soldier, abandons the South’s losing cause to set out on foot and find his woman.

Ada (Kidman) and he have had only a furtive courtship but share a mystical love (or a contrived one, depending on your willingness to suspend disbelief) and Inman endures all manner of ordeal to return to her. Meanwhile, Ada, a cosseted belle by upbringing, finds herself ill-suited for the domiciliary challenges of war as she tries to survive long enough to greet Inman when he returns.

Cold Mountain differs from Rabbit Hole in just about every conceivable way, but it shares the later movie’s mood of overarching sadness and also its forays into black comedy — which is here realized, of course, via Renée Zellweger’s kiss-my-grits rendition of Ruby Thewes, the uneducated but capable farmhand who arrives just in time to save Ada’s home. (In speaking of parallel universes, I pine for one in which Cold Mountain’s success spawned a TV sitcom spinoff for Ruby.) Director Anthony Minghella borrows generously from the novel’s spiritual and lyrical dialogue but wisely leaves most of Inman’s meditations on consciousness in McCarthy’s pages, and the result is a multifaceted but mostly unpretentious tragic melodrama that’s probably the most all-around enjoyable film in this collection.

If, after taking in Cold Mountain, you’re not yet sick of watching Kidman wield enormous shotguns, she does this plenty more in The Others, where she plays — you’ll never guess — a woman trying to hold a household together as she awaits a lover who may or may not be returning from war. This time, though, it’s World War II and the man isn’t a lately come lover but a husband with whom Grace has borne two precocious but photophobic children. Servants appear, seemingly out of nowhere (another parallel with Cold Mountain), and at about the same time Grace starts noticing what seem to be fleeting apparitions in the old house.

Though never, to my knowledge, aspiring to comedy, The Others nevertheless flirts with it by accident from time to time (the elderly child in the wedding dress; Grace’s overbearing demeanor, which makes it curious that anyone would work for her). This is actually a general enduring trait of gothic horror at its most effective (“Here’s Johnny”: funny? or no?) and The Others is no exception. The urge to laugh comes along with the wide eyes, the tingle in the backs of the knees.

The Others is the earliest movie in this collection and it might not be a coincidence that Kidman’s performance here seems the least polished. There are times when her British accent feels forced, and she gives Grace such a univocally humorless, frantic pitch that, at least early on, she’s a hard character to like.

The Others (2001)

By contrast, she probably does her best job in the experimental Dogville, where she’s obliged to negotiate an allegorical puzzle of a script by Lars von Trier. As, um, Grace, the estranged daughter of a Depression-era gangland boss, she flees to the impoverished town of Dogville, where, entranced by her beauty, her somewhat artificial damsel-in-distress frailty and her well-spoken manner, the Dogvillians at first welcome her eagerly. But as Dogville is harangued by gangsters, then by lawmen offering a generous reward for Grace, the townsfolk begin using her fugitive status as leverage to extort ever more onerous labor from her, then abuse her in petty, then severe, then horrific ways.

Kidman’s at her most masterful here. She strikes just the right balance of stoicism, sweetness and subterfuge, allowing von Trier to unspool this savage, misanthropic conundrum of a film at a perfectly deliberate pace.

All these movies are testaments to Kidman’s talent, naturally, but the collection disproportionately favors her more recent work and I found myself keening for a sample of her junior output by the end of it. (Dead Calm or To Die For would have been particularly welcome.) Still, this is an outstanding collection, especially considering the price.

The DVDs themselves appear to be repackaged earlier releases rather than new pressings, so extras and technical quality vary somewhat. Rabbit Hole and Dogville both include deleted scenes, for instance. They also both have commentary tracks (and is anyone surprised to learn that the one von Trier does with his cinematographer is wonderfully uncomfortable and awkward?). Sadly, none include Kidman herself.

Cold Mountain and The Others, meanwhile, are strictly bare bones. It’s hard to complain too much, since both these titles are available in two-disk collector’s editions for devoted Kidmanistas willing to part with the extra cash. For casual fans like myself, however, I can’t imagine a much better deal than this and find the Nicole Kidman 4-DVD set an effortless product to recommend.

Okay. Now do Naomi Watts!

RATING 9 / 10
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