Nicole Kidman’s performances can simultaneously win her further legions of adoring fans and additional ranks of grumbling haters. She is wonderful to some, whiny to others, miserable to endure for many and majestic for millions. But it’s generally accepted, even by her diehard supporters, that she seemed to peak in the early years of the 21st century. Her last genuinely astounding performance in a really good film was some time ago. Stars like her that hit a critical rut have a way to clamber out though; after amassing enough power in mainstream blockbusters they can produce their own projects, perfectly tailored to their talents.
This is what Kidman does with Rabbit Hole, adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play. The character of grieving mother Becca is perfect for her, resembling past roles in Birth and The Others, and providing a bearable outlet for her notoriously divisive bouts of cold and complaining emotion. Even though this is the sort of portrayal we’ve come to expect from Australia’s most successful export to Hollywood, the raw subject matter somehow suits her trademark moody and restrained introspection. You couldn’t call this a bad performance; in fact you feel like you have to say it’s a good one.
In contrast to Kidman’s recent record, co-star Aaron Eckhart is someone on the up and he doesn’t do that progress any harm here. Howie is Becca’s nice, normal husband, doing his best in an impossible situation. In the opening act of Rabbit Hole Kidman’s character is being as irritating as we know she can be from some of her previous roles. Watching this with a friend she moaned that she didn’t like Kidman usually and that she was typically “wet” again in Rabbit Hole. As I’ve said though, you do sympathise with her behaviour because of the grief, even if you might find the efforts of Howie more appealing.
The acting in Rabbit Hole is hard to criticise, with the two leads ultimately convincing, even as we lurch from one dreary standoff to another, with the odd shouting match in between. The supporting cast are good too, with Dianne West as Becca’s mother doing a great job of articulating experienced grief, sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) authentically rebellious, Sandra Oh as a rounded fellow mourner at a support group and newcomer Miles Teller as the awkward young driver unlucky enough to bear the burden of responsibility and blame on his well meaning, naive shoulders.
Even the script is mostly hard to fault. The quality of the source material shines through, with the truth and wit of the dialogue rising above that of most films. Conversations about the most difficult of subjects are realistic and feel as though they are ripped from real everyday lives. The film is refreshing for approaching grief from an underused and understated angle; eight months on from the drama of the death, this is the story of the shift from the constant tears to keeping appearances of normality. Lindsay-Abaire is fond of metaphor, with mixed success. Some symbols, like that of grief changing in weight until it’s like a “brick in your pocket”, are poignant and moving. However the entire film is a metaphor and crucially this is the one that is less evidently a success.
Rabbit Hole slowly unravels with not much happening and Becca literally getting on with the housework; reflecting the emptiness left behind after loss. The film as a whole is a grim trudge through nothingness. This may be an accurate picture of the reality of grief, a painful journey back to normality, with no big and sudden revelation to make things better, but it’s a story that doesn’t translate engagingly from stage to screen. There are glimpses here of why the play must have been so powerful and well received. It’s easy to see why Kidman saw in this the chance for her critical rebirth. But without the intimacy of theatre and very little happening in the plot, this is one of those films that leaves you exhausted and aching from concentrating on being respectful to the subject matter.
Sophie Ivan, reviewing Rabbit Hole for Film4, sums up the film perfectly: “Rabbit Hole is a film that’s easier to commend than it is to like”. No one will want to say anything bad against Rabbit Hole; but very few people will enjoy it.
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Nazi Germany is a historical setting we are all familiar with. Films set within the Third Reich often have similarities; good natured people trying to help persecuted Jewish neighbours, informers, political intimidation, concentration camps and the striking red background of the swastika. Equally there are areas often overlooked. The boxing rings for example.
Max Schmeling is a German film directed by Uwe Boll which tells the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest boxers. He became world champion in the early 1930s, getting his big break by beating the title holder by default after an illegal “low blow” from his opponent. The film begins by following Max as a paratrooper for the German army in Crete, where everyone seems to know his name. During a conversation with a British prisoner he recalls how his fame started, flashing back to his regret at being denied the world championship outright. The rest of his career became a struggle to prove he deserved that title.
Schmeling wanted to prove himself outside of Germany as well as within it. He wanted to be the best in the world. He was already a national hero but he wanted to win other countries over with his ability. He frequently flew to America for huge matches at iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden. He was beginning to win admiration around the globe until his task became a lot harder with the rise of the Nazi party. As Germany’s image was soured so was Schmeling’s. One of the interesting themes in this film is that Schmeling saw himself as a boxer first and a German second. And that Nazism would simply pass as though it were an adolescent phase.
Hitler wanted Schmeling to be a symbol of the Aryan race and Germany’s might. As Schmeling sought to arrange fights with the formidable black American boxer Joe Louis, an opponent with an unbeaten record and extraordinary number of KOs that would enhance his boxing credentials should he somehow beat him, the Nazis tried to portray the clash as a battle between races and ideologies. Schmeling was naive in one sense but extremely brave in another, to carry on regardless of this manipulation and insist it was just a boxing match. Through his honour he simultaneously became a political pawn by refusing to recognise the wider significance, and rose above the Nazis by continuing with his dream.
So this film is an epic historical drama, encompassing wide areas of German life before and after the Nazis took power. We see both the glitz of the Weimar era and the race riots of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin, when Jewish shops and residents were viciously attacked. The period detail, particularly the costumes, and the variety of locations, are impressive. It is also a story of the rise of a sporting great, with Rocky style montages as Schmeling trains for his big fights and moments of tactical deliberation. And there is a love story, when Schmeling meets his soul mate in actress Anny Ondra and manages to marry her.
The love story gives this film something extra. There are, as I said, a lot of stories set in Nazi Germany, often with romances, sometimes with sporting heroes trying to avoid the control of the regime. But this romance is particularly convincing. Henry Maske gives an Arnie-esque performance, as a simple man falling for a beautiful woman. And Susanne Wuest is believable as first a teasing woman suspicious of a brute pursuing her affections and finally an actress frightened by what the Nazis are doing to her profession.
A short but enlightening “Making of” feature on the DVD reveals the reason for the authenticity of this relationship on screen; Maske is not an actor but a boxer. Therefore, as Wuest puts it in an interview, we have a boxer playing a boxer and an actress playing an actress. Director Boll was impressed with Maske’s performance and put it down to his ability to effectively play himself, identifying with Schmeling to inhabit the character.
Overall this might not be the most original film experience but it is immensely enjoyable. All of its various elements are superbly executed, from the production standards to the acting, from the music to the exciting and raw boxing matches themselves. This feels like an incredibly real snapshot of history and it’s a story that deserves to be well told about a remarkable man.
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