Nicole Kidman. The name conjures many images and associations: the tumble of red curls and pert, blue-eyed face of the star as a young newcomer to the screen; the marriage to Tom Cruise and ensuing escape from Scientology; the lithe physique and dewy features that she wears easily to this day. But one phrase we often forget to attach to her is “great actress.”
Perhaps because of her demeanor of self-effacing, even demure, modesty, it’s been easy to underestimate Kidman over the course of a career that now spans three decades. But this week has offered a reminder of why we should prize an actress who has fashioned one of the most fascinating careers in a business notorious for pigeonholing its starlets early, keeping them boxed in and discarding them when their physical attributes show signs of sagging, bagging or otherwise naturally evolving.
Kidman has largely escaped that trap, as anyone who watched the recent HBO series “Big Little Lies” can attest. The stylish, compulsively engrossing thriller-slash-domestic-melodrama turned out to be a sleeper “peak TV” hit largely on the strength of its ensemble cast, which included Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, Shailene Woodley and Kidman, who played the abused wife of a prosperous executive. Kidman — who co-produced with Witherspoon — was a standout in the series, her portrayal of a woman fighting for her own physical and psychic survival radiating shame, ambivalence, glazed confusion, determination and barely perceptible ripples of latent power. Never showy or gratuitous, it was a performance as delicate and fine-grained as the porcelain that her doll-like character, Celeste, sometimes seemed to be made of.
No sooner had Kidman delivered a powerhouse with “Big Little Lies” than she whipsawed her audience into another direction entirely: In “Queen of the Desert,” out Friday, she portrays the storied explorer, writer and photographer Gertrude Bell, a contemporary of T.E. Lawrence who traveled the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century and helped redraw the region’s national boundaries after World War I. Written and directed by Werner Herzog with an uncharacteristically blunt and stodgily sentimental hand, “Queen of the Desert” isn’t a great film. In fact, it’s often a very bad one, its strenuous efforts to be the female version of “Lawrence of Arabia” notwithstanding. But none of its faults lie with Kidman, who dominates the screen in nearly every shot with regal composure and restraint (and, apparently, a generous supply of SPF-50 sunscreen).
This is a familiar dynamic in Kidman’s filmography: She’s made some famous duds, most recently the overbaked historical pseudo-epic “Australia,” the deliciously campy “The Paperboy” and the ill-advised Grace Kelly biopic “Grace of Monaco.”
But even in her worst movies, Kidman is never the problem; her performances rise above whatever dreck they’re in, as if her supreme self-possession as a performer inoculated her against the toxic material she was working with. And the bad movies are relatively thin on the ground compared with the myriad triumphs: She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” (we’re still arguing about that nose), but that was a full seven years after her astonishing portrayal of a fame-hungry TV journalist in “To Die For,” in which she permanently shut up the doubters in a triumphantly crafty, satirical turn.
One need only consider Kidman’s vanity-free supporting appearance in last year’s “Lion,” alight quickly on “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Others” and go all the way back to her breakout roles in “Dead Calm” and “Days of Thunder” to appreciate the rigor and expressive range of an actress who can easily hold her own with the Meryl Streeps, Viola Davises and Cate Blanchetts of the world but is rarely mentioned in their company.
Rigor, range and — most crucially — curiosity: Just as admirable as the performances have been Kidman’s choices when it comes to material and the filmmakers she wants to work with.
Ever since becoming a star, she’s made small, artistically risky films that may not have had an upside where finances or fame or fan service were concerned but pushed the medium in exhilarating and sometimes strange, even alienating ways. For every conventional Hollywood production such as “Cold Mountain” or “The Interpreter,” she’s made a chilly, Brechtian experiment in actorly submission, such as Lars von Trier’s “Dogville,” or supported a still-emerging filmmaker, as in Jonathan Glazer’s superb spiritual thriller “Birth.”
Not many people saw Kidman’s mesmerizing portrayal of the photographer Diane Arbus in the boundary-breaking film “Fur,” or her turn as a grieving mother in “Rabbit Hole,” or as the traumatized grown-up daughter of self-involved artists in “The Family Fang.” But she has become one of the industry’s most valuable and adventurous side players, a headliner who — Q Scores and “likability” be damned — leverages her gifts and box-office pull in service to pushing the art form forward. It should surprise no one that her upcoming projects include the edgy, feminist TV mystery series “Top of the Lake” and films with Sofia Coppola and the Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”).
Last year, writing about actress Isabelle Huppert in the New Republic, the critic Miriam Bale noted that in the movie “Elle,” Huppert herself became an auteur, her craft and potent persona transcending the material and taking a hand in creating the movie that was every bit as crucial as the director’s. The same, writ even larger, could be said for Kidman, whose shrewd auteurist eye is revealed not just in one movie but through the arc of her career. In an industry dedicated to escapism, shallow reassurance and dumbing down, she has single-mindedly pursued thoughtfulness, intelligence and risk, as an actor and a producer. (Check out the flawed, weird but wonderfully woman-centric erotic thriller “In the Cut” for an early example of the latter.)
It’s nothing new for actresses to search out envelopes to push, edges to explore or boundaries to transgress in the name of publicity, “stretching” or simply staying relevant. In Kidman’s case, her finest performance may be a cumulative one, far outstripping the workaday job of taking a character from the page to the stage. Her genius is just as strategic as it is technical, in how she’s consistently leveraged stardom on behalf of growth, taste and sophistication. With her preternatural technical and physical gifts, she easily could have been sleepwalking through the past 30 years. Instead, she’s chosen to keep her eyes wide open.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said “Queen of the Desert” will be showing on Netflix starting Friday. It is out in theaters Friday and will be available via on-demand services April 14.