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From Stanley Kubrick to Lars von Trier: 10 best Nicole Kidman films

Once I start putting all my little insecurities in my mind, I’m not actually acting. Then it’s about me – and it should never be about me. It should be about the character.” – Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and revered actors, known for her diverse filmography which is a result of unimaginable talent and versatility. The four-time Oscar nominee has an Academy Award, two Emmy Awards, five Golden Globe awards and more such accolades to her name, which bear testimony to her prowess.

Kidman, who was reportedly inspired to act by Margaret Hamilton’s performance in The Wizard of Oz as the Wicked Witch of the West, has pursued her dreams from the get-go. After joining the Australian Theatre for Young people while regularly performing at Phillip Street Theatre – where her performances amassed huge praise – she became further inspired to indulge in her dreams of being a full-time actor. 

Having made her debut at 16 in a remake of the Australian favourite Bush Christmas, it would not be until 1995 that Kidman, who had starred in various roles before, would gain recognition. She played Dr. Chase Meridian in Barman Forever and appeared in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For; the latter garnered Kidman critical acclaim for her wonderful performance and even helped her win a Golden Globe. Following her success, she started showing her flair of playing complex characters in a variety of films, from being a rich American girl brimming with naivete in The Portrait of a Lady to a spirited and lovestruck courtesan in Moulin Rouge. However, it was Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours where Kidman’s performance as Virginia Woolf helped her win her first Academy Award. During her speech, she referred to the ongoing Iraq War and even emphasised how important it is to turn to art to seek solace. Kidman said that “art is important…you believe in what you do and you want to honour that, and it is a tradition that needs to be upheld.” Kidman also had a massive award sweep in 2017 when she won awards at the Emmys, Golden Globes and the SAG for her work in television, namely Big Little Lies

When asked how she manages to fit into her roles with such poise and ease, Kidman said: “Once I start putting all my little insecurities in my mind, I’m not actually acting. Then it’s about me – and it should never be about me. It should be about the character.” She further added that all she tries to do is “to stay completely in the role as the actor and as the character.” 

As this incredibly talented actress turns 54 today, we take a look at some of her best film performances that bear witness to her extraordinaire. 

10 best films starring Nicole Kidman: 

10. The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

With the Civil War as the backdrop, Miss Farnsworth and Miss Morrow are teaching girls in a seminary when an unconscious soldier is found by a young Amy in the mossy forests. He is brought to the school where Miss Farnsworth decides to take care of him until he gets better. However, the women soon find themselves enamoured by his beauty and feel the pangs of desire and arousal as they fight for his attention, against one another. As soon as they find out how calculative and manipulative this man is, however, the beguiled ladies soon seek action.

Being the first woman in the last 50 years to win the Best Director award at the Cannes Film festival, Sofia Coppola’s film is steeped in female gaze and fragments of gothic horror where the director deftly manipulated the screen ratio to make the film seem claustrophobic and sinister. Jealousy and betrayal culminate from repressed sexuality with scheming and treacherous characters that are equal parts conniving and seductive. Alongside Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman is incredible in her ominous and dubious role. This was Kidman’s second collaboration with Farrell following Yorgos LanthimosThe Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Coppola had, apparently, pictured Kidman in the role while conceptualising the film and said: “I think she’s unique. It was like watching a virtuoso or an incredible athlete. We’d do a scene, and she’d have five different emotions going on at the same time.” 

“I have to say, when they saw me they said, ‘there is nothing more frightening than a startled woman with a gun.’”

9. Boy Erased (Joel Edgarton, 2018)

Jared Eamons is the son of an Arkansas Baptist preacher who is committed to a conversion therapy programme named ‘Love in Action’ where questionable methods are put to use to “correct” the sexuality of men from being gay to straight. Jared, who is attracted to men, had a traumatic experience in college where a man named Henry sexually assaulted him. His father sends him to the conversion programme hoping to see his son get rid of the phase but his supportive mother follows him to Tennessee. Jared befriends a boy named Cameron who is humiliated for failing an exercise. Cameron helps Jared escape and his mother is enraged over how his father sent him to conversion therapy without having conducted background research regarding their oppressive means. Jared’s hatred for his father slowly simmers. 

This complex film demands audience empathy while presenting to them the shocking reality of conversion therapies. They try to emphasise how sexuality is never just a phase and the filmmaker manages to portray a heart-wrenching story of a family that is ripped apart by preconceived notions, prejudices, religious sayings, violence and homophobia. It is distressing to witness how homophobia has been internalised enough to make one abandon his own son over the alleged shame and embarrassment. The dangerous psychological and physical infliction of these therapies is exposed in the film as well. Kidman plays the supportive mother who makes “amends to her child for a huge thing that she knows she did that was wrong” despite not being aware of the same when she consented. 

“I love God. God loves me. I love my son. That’s it. I think for your father it’s a little bit more complicated.”

8. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)

A young English poet named Christian visits Paris to partake in the Bohemian movement when he witnesses the wonderful club Moulin Rouge.  He meets the spirited courtesan named Satine with whom he falls in love amidst various obstacles hindering their union where the lovers vow to be together irrespective of the magnanimous problems, including taking on an envious Duke to whom Satine had been promised. 

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor have palpable chemistry and keep the romance of Satine and Christian alive. Kidman’s character is based on Jane Avril, a French can-can dancer. Luhrmann highlighted humour, irony and satire amidst this glittering pop-cultural and musical love affair. Kidman, while rehearsing for one of her dance routines, had sustained heavy injuries, including a knee injury and fractured ribs. Kidman won Oscar and SAG nominations as well as a Golden Globe for her stellar performance. 

“Tell our story, Christian. That way I’ll- I’ll always be with you.”

7. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)

Grace is a mysteriously well-dressed young woman who is apparently being pursued by goons and she seeks refuge in a small-town named Dogville where she encounters the self-proclaimed town spokesperson Tom. The town agrees to hide her in return for her services to the locals. As soon as the town sees the poster that demands her to be handed over, despite knowing her innocence, the dual-faced townsfolk start ganging up on her in sinister ways, oppressing and mistreating her. Their contemptuous behaviour and the abuse they inflict on her makes one question humanity.  

Eccentric auteur Lars von Trier is heavily influenced by the seminal theatrical works of Bertold Brecht and reflects it in this film that is narrated in nine chapters by John Hunt and is staged with minimal scenery. Via this film, von Trier wanted to convey how “evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right”. The film is a deep and understanding commentary on the diabolical nature of humanity and is von Trier’s masterpiece. Given the dark and harrowing elements that the film contained, Kidman, who played Grace, reportedly vowed to never come back to shoot with the director. She had even choked during one of the scenes when the team thought it was a part of her acting. As Grace becomes the symbol of repression and desire, constantly abused by moralism and ethics, Kidman manages to usher in a weird sense of charm into her role which would haunt the audience long after the credits stopped rolling.    

“I think the world would be better without Dogville.”

6. Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004) 

Anna and Sean are a married couple and following Sean’s sudden death, it takes nearly ten years for Anna to recuperate. She is set to marry her fiance Joseph when she suddenly encounters a 10-year-old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. While all the people around her are extremely sceptical of his weird claims, Anna becomes more convinced of this being the truth when the boy reveals secrets that only her husband was aware of. Soon, she descends into a sort of frenzy, agreeing to wait for him until he was of legal age to marry him yet again. 

Although the film is somewhat strange, Kidman’s epic performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Nicole Kidman had allegedly demanded the script to be rewritten to omit the exceedingly sexual nature of the film. She often talked about how this film was one of her favourites, underrated and misunderstood due to the controversial bathtub scene that eclipsed the themes of grief, loneliness, isolation and vulnerability in the film. For her role, Kidman gave her best shot as she found the role to be overwhelming, not being able to separate herself from it. The director, in particular, was pleased and surprised by how well she blended in with Anna’s mourning for her husband as well as being the absolute emotional wreck that the character demanded of her.   

“I’ve met somebody who seems to be Sean… I really hoped that he was Sean. I wanted him to be Sean. But I knew he wasn’t… The thing is, I’m falling in love with Sean again. That’s what’s happening. I need you to tell him to go away. Because I can’t do it.”

5. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) 

New York City doctor Willam Harford and his wife Alice attend an opulent Christmas party following which they discuss their sexual fantasies. William is informed of bizarre sex orgies where his friend Nick plays the piano in a blindfold. The men at the orgies are always masked and dressed in costumes, surrounded by young, gorgeous women. After getting hold of appropriate gear, William heads to one such party where, despite his disguise, he is recognised which poses a great threat to him and his family. Although he thinks it can escape it, the sinister forces keep pursuing him. 

Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, Kubrick wanted to make the film a sex comedy that would have an inherently “wide and sombre streak”. While shooting this film, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise were married and had been convinced by Kubrick to shoot open-ended contracts where they would have to be committed to shooting the film solely irrespective of the time it would take. Kubrick was notorious for maintaining the secrecy of production, preventing the couple from exchanging notes and acting together. Shooting with Kubrick was, according to Kidman, exhilarating and almost like she was “attending film school”. Kubrick had even dissuaded her from retiring from acting by saying that she owed it to her “talent not to stop”.     

“Millions of years of evolution, right? Right? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women… women it is just about security and commitment and whatever the fuck else!”

4. The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996)

The film focuses on a spirited young woman named Isabel Archer who is enamoured by the seemingly enigmatic Gilbert Osmond, much to the chagrin of her cousin Ralph who believes in her intelligence and has persuaded his father to bequeath all his inheritance to her. After she marries Gilbert, she realises his true, barbaric and abusive nature, coming to terms with how he raises his daughter in a nearly Draconian regime. When Isabel tries to flout the rules set for her by Gilbert, she is met with anger and abuse. She finally decides to flee to her freedom, not caring what is in store for her. 

Kidman was at her peak while filming this role, adding a charismatic aura to her character. Alongside the cynical character of John Malkovich, Kidman thrived as the young American girl. However, as part of the shooting hazards, she was confined to bed for nearly two weeks after filming due to the toll the stress of shooting had taken on her. Although there are certain directorial shortcomings on the part of Campion, Kidman’s performance alongside the talented ensemble added a sense of mystery and charm to the pretentious adaptation of Henry James’ eponymous 1881 novel.  

“I’m rather ashamed of my plans. I make a new one every day.” 

3. To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995)

Weather reporter, Suzanne Stone, works at a small-town TV station but is obsessed with her dream of being a news anchor at a big news channel. Although she aspires to get there, she feels that she is being held back by the middle-class aspirations of her husband Larry who wants her to give up her career and start a family. She decides to eliminate Larry to clear out her path and employs a young high schooler named Jimmy who is smitten by her. Although Suzanne is convinced of the success of her plan, portraying Larry as a druggie who had been murdered by his dealers, Larry’s family soon sniffs foul play and pursues Suzanne actively, convinced of her role in his murder. 

The film is based on real-life events and as soon as she read the script, Kidman was convinced that she wanted to play this complicated role. She had even tracked down Van Sant to talk to him about her ideas regarding the role. Her incredible performance as the highly ambitious Suzanne garnered her critical acclaim as well as a BAFTA nomination and a Golden Globe award. Sean Penn even sent her a letter by talking about how she was “robbed” of her Oscar nomination when she did not receive any. Kidman and Van Sant made an explosive duo as they invigorated this dark comedy starring a manipulative woman notorious for her enigma and magnetism. 

“It’s nice to live in a country where life, liberty and all the rest of it still stand for something.” 

2. The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001) 

With the Second World War nearing its end, Grace, who lives in a giant mansion with her children, awaits her husband’s return eagerly. The children are suffering from photosensitivity which prevents them from being touched by direct sunlight. They live within the cold, damp walls of the apartment in a claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere where they have to abide by various bizarre rules rooted in religious beliefs. Grace soon hires a group of house-helps to help keep the children in order that trigger sinister events in the house, convincing Grace of the malevolent spirits that reside in the house. 

2001 was a busy year for Kidman. Following her bright and jazzy role in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, she was quite reluctant to do a role where she would have to venture into the ominous and darker side of things. Emotionally, it was too much for her to bear. The actress even said, “At one point I didn’t want to make the film because I couldn’t even go there emotionally”. However, having been her fan since To Die For, Amenabar convinced her and Grace became one of Kidman’s best roles.

“If you see a ghost, say ‘hello’.”

1. The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)

This fascinating film deals with the stories of three women who are seeking purpose and meaning in their lives at different points of time in history, connected by their shared love for Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. In 1923, Virginia Woolf has begun writing the novel which enchants a pregnant housewife named Laura Brown in 1951. She cannot stop reading the book even while planning a party for her husband. In modern times, a woman named Clarissa is arranging a party for her friend Richard, an AIDS-affected author on his deathbed. The women are all interlinked and share a deep-rooted connection over the book. 

The film won Kidman her first Academy Award for her stellar performance as the celebrated author who struggles with her mental health and depression while writing the novel. The lives of the three women are concurrent and caught in a transcendent moment of shared anguish that is portrayed wonderfully in the film. Alongside a stellar ensemble including Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, Kidman, who read Woolf’s personal letters to make sense of her character, delivers one of the best performances of her career. 

“If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know. Only I can understand my condition. You live with the threat, you tell me you live with the threat of my extinction. Leonard, I live with it too.”