NICOLE Kidman's prominence in the tabloids, where speculation about her private life has proved an enduring staple, may have camouflaged her considerable achievements on screen. Indeed, her body of work during the past six years has been one of the most interesting and varied from any actor in recent times.
By taking on a range of challenging roles in smaller-scale independent films, Kidman has never opted to play it safe professionally. What is impressive is that so many of her risks have paid off artistically. Beginning with her contained but moving performance in Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut, her recent movies have included roles as diverse as Satine in Moulin Rouge!, Russian mail-order bride Nadia in the black comedy Birthday Girl, Virginia Woolf in The Hours and the mysterious Grace in Lars Von Trier's highly experimental Dogville. And she was brilliantly brittle as an overprotective mother in Alejandro Amenabar's atmospheric thriller The Others.
True, not everything she has done has worked. She was one of several actors to be miscast in the underwhelming Cold Mountain, and The Human Stain and last year's remake of The Stepford Wives were misfires that are best forgotten. Even in these deeply flawed movies, however, Kidman never gives the sense that she is merely treading water.
Neither does she recycle her performances. What is striking about Kidman is that she is still able, despite her distinctive appearance, to disappear into her work.
As David Thomson says in the chapter on Kidman in his book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, one of the impressive things about her in The Hours was that "it hovered around the uncertainty of whether it was her. It is very rare for movie stars to be unrecognisable ... What I am trying to get at with Kidman's Woolf is the remarkable way in which she employed the materials and the craft of acting to get at a person whose greatest chance at life was to be someone unreal -- like Mrs Dalloway. And she succeeded."
Her two latest films, The Interpreter and Birth, further demonstrate her versatility. In the former, she plays a UN interpreter called Sylvia who becomes linked to an assassination plot after she overhears plans to kill the president of the troubled African nation where she was reared. Directed by Sydney Pollack and co-starring Sean Penn, The Interpreter is a much more glossy concoction than many of Kidman's recent films, but ultimately it is her performance, unfussy and withheld, that provides the necessary glue that makes the story's disparate elements cohere.
Speaking to The Australian on Monday, Kidman said she was attracted to the role of Sylvia in part because she had been keen to make a genre picture. "But I wanted to do one that had real characters, which is what this offered. I also felt I wouldn't get the chance to work with Sydney again because he's in his 70s and this is his milieu."
In Birth, Kidman plays another woman living in New York, one who is about to remarry when she is befriended by a 10-year-old boy who claims to be her long-dead husband.
While The Interpreter "is about two damaged people finding each other at the wrong time", as Kidman puts it, Birth is about someone "who met the right person and lost the right person and will never ever ever love like this again. It is about a different form of love and poses the question: is there a great love and if you have that can anything else ever compete with that? And what exactly do you need from love for it to satisfy you?"
While the sight of Kidman contemplating a relationship with a 10-year-old has attracted mixed reactions since the film first screened at the Venice film festival last year - a scene in which they share a bath has proved especially provocative - Kidman maintains that the story is really about a woman who has never come to terms with her loss.
"In Birth, my character is still in love with her dead husband and she cannot promise herself to anyone else emotionally," she says. "So it's almost like the little boy had to appear, whether he is real or some kind of apparition, because it's 10 years down the track and she is still in deep grief."
Both Birth and The Interpreter demand considerable suspension of disbelief, but it is Kidman who makes both movies more than the sum of their parts by fashioning characters whose actions are more credible than the stories.
Precisely how she does this is a mystery - even to her. While acknowledging that she still works regularly with a drama coach - "she's a woman who knows me on a very deep level, so we can work very quickly," she says - she's at a loss to explain the elements of her craft: "I wouldn't have a clue how to teach acting. I have no idea how you do it, but you do have to morph, which means you have to have an open and aware mind."
For Kidman, remaining open and aware means "staying a participant in the real world" - not falling for the trappings of stardom.
"I'm not out there dancing at parties on tables or lapping up the fame," she says. "It just isn't me. I don't feel that comfortable with it and I don't like the scrutiny. But what I absolutely love is the connections you make with people when you are telling these stories, and I'm fascinated by human psychology and by the way people get through life."
The Interpreter is released next Thursday; Birth opens on April 28.
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