Kidman's demeanor has an icy quality to it -- not a flaw or complaint by any means, but likely a factor in her landing a higher rate of period pieces than other big-name actresses. As such, her participation in both of the true period pieces here (the Miramax titles) feels less like good casting and more like pigeonholing. Although her Cold Mountain character allows her to hit some comedic notes and even be a bit of a badass when it comes to defending her family farm, her longing lover Ada is a pretty generic "epic romance lead," and casting her is a pretty generic move. Jude Law, playing Ada's would-be other half Inman, gets a much wider range of notes to play, and he gets to do so with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi, and Natalie Portman, among others. The film itself looks beautiful and is frequently engaging thanks to strong pacing and gorgeous visuals by the late Anthony Minghella, but Cold Mountain never feels like it called out to be a movie for any reason other than the existence of other films just like it.
Her role in The Others is even thinner, playing the paranoid mother of two children with a deadly aversion to bright light. To keep them safe, she keeps them locked up and behind the wall of curtains lining her cavernous mansion home. Just like Cold Mountain, The Others has a missing soldier lover, played here by Christopher Eccleston. Kidman shares a few big dramatic scenes with Eccleston, but they come off like unnecessary emotional baggage grafted onto a simple ghost story, full of creaking floorboards and opening doors. No doubt director/writer Alejandro Amenábar thinks he's up to something more than a fun haunted house movie, but the film is at its best in creating a creepy atmosphere, not digging deep into its characters.
The other two films in the set are a different story. Lars von Trier's Dogville is a harrowing, heartbreaking account of the ways in which the morality of a small town is tested. There's no denying it has a certain level of pretension: von Trier shoots on a nearly empty soundstage, with the outlines of invisible buildings drawn on the floor, and the narration by John Hurt is almost as unnecessary as it is frequently overwritten. At the same time, it builds into a wonderfully complex conundrum, and von Trier's casting of Kidman in the main role seems to consider the things she's typecast for in order to play to and also subvert them. Playing out over an epic 177 minutes that are packed with emotional cruelty, it's a tough film even before it really sticks the knife in.
Still, the best of the set is Rabbit Hole, the 2010 film that scored Kidman a well-deserved Oscar nomination. The story, about a couple (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) still grieving over the loss of their young son, sounds like a melodramatic award ploy at its most obvious and shameless, but it's Kidman's unpredictable, live-wire emotional state that brings the movie to life, especially when she begins to build a surprising and tentative friendship with the young man (Miles Teller) whose distracted driving caused her son's death. Echkart is also fantastic, matching Kidman's performance beat for beat with an entirely different realization of grief, and director John Cameron Mitchell finds subtle ways to bring their emotional bonds to the surface even as the uneven alignment of their emotional recoveries causes painful friction.
Cold Mountain: ***1/2
The Video and Audio
All four films are offered in Dolby Digital 5.1. Cold Mountain sounds the best, with several incredible battle and also musical sequences highlighting the aural experience. The Others, comparatively, is strangely quiet, with the dialogue practically at a whisper. Rabbit Hole's soundtrack has an appealingly present and raw feel to it, whereas Dogville is the rawest of the raw, with purposefully unrealistic sound effects, crisp narration, clear dialogue, and very little other audio to speak of. Aside from The Others' volume problem, all four feature presentation tracks sound pretty good to my ears.