A remarkable breakout for Nicole Kidman, who gives this feminist thriller everything it deserves, and more. She plays Rae Ingram, the young wife of a naval officer (Sam Neill) who has taken them on a quiet yachting trip to help process a recent tragedy. Rae isn’t so sure about this form of therapy and asks to cut the trip short, but her husband tells her, “When you’re strong we’ll go home.”
Bad decision, the first of many he’ll make. When the couple encounters a schooner adrift, they take aboard a jittery survivor named Hughie (Billy Zane). Without spoiling the details, I’ll just say that Rae eventually finds herself alone on the boat with Hughie, who isn’t exactly what he claimed.
Zane gives a doozy of a performance. Sweaty and oily – the better to help him physically channel the Marlon Brando of A Streetcar Named Desire – he’s constantly threatening to drag the picture into camp. Slipping in and out of lunacy, as if Hughie is momentarily oblivious to the menace he’s causing, Zane is more of an amusing presence than a threatening one.
It’s telling that Kidman can register so effectively in the face of Zane’s showboating.
It’s telling, really, that Kidman can register so effectively in the face of Zane’s showboating. She charts Rae’s transformation from helpless, grief-stricken woman to empowered heroine without pandering to caricature in either direction. She’s fully Rae – intense, alert, intelligent – in the first scene and the last. Dead Calm is, at heart, an awakening movie (it isn’t until Rae’s husband is quite literally set aside that she’s able to discover the strength she has within) and Kidman’s intimate performance makes this both an exterior and interior journey for the audience.
Credit is also due to director Phillip Noyce, who earned a Hollywood career on the strength of his work here. As Hughie and Rae play mind games on the yacht, Noyce’s camera races in and out of corridors and portholes as if it’s running through a hamster maze. Rather than emphasize the claustrophobia of the quarters, he chooses to play up the vessel’s many possibilities – an ingenious touch. Also effective is the decision to shoot most of the action on an eerily calm sea; there’s a latently sinister quality to the mirrored surface that no storm – including the one that appears near the end – could quite match.
I’m not sure we needed the over-the-top epilogue. Again, better not to spoil details, except to note that the sequence delivers a comical dose of comeuppance and also somewhat undercuts Dead Calm’s feminist drive. It’s fun, I guess, but unnecessary. By this point Kidman had the movie well in hand.