In the fifth episode of “Big Little Lies,” Nicole Kidman’s Celeste Wright arrives alone to a therapy session she was meant to share with her abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). Facial expressions contradicting the words that tumble from her mouth, Celeste insists her and Perry’s relationship is a thunderstorm only because they have so much passion. “It’s as if we turn each other on by rage,” she says, eyes glued to the floor. Celeste inverts her lower lip, hesitant about what the admission means. She looks up again: “And that’s a problem, I think.”
This moment alone is a master class, representative of everything complex and refined a seasoned actor can bring to the screen. As the therapist (Robin Weigert) chips away at Celeste’s denial, Kidman flutters through a range of reactions: defensive, self-blaming, performatively perturbed, reluctantly receptive. As quickly as Celeste rises to leave in disgust, she returns to her seat, practically crying out to be probed so she can finally say aloud what she has struggled to bury.
When the scene resumes a few minutes later, Celeste vows Perry has never made her fear for her life. And then she looks away, tacitly retracting the sentiment. She wipes tears with her entire hand, just as she had in the previous episode, with Perry by her side ― they are too consuming for one finger.
Kidman has made an already nuanced chronicle of domestic violence, competitive affluence and contemporary womanhood even more riveting. Contrast the therapy bits with Celeste’s other facets. When sharing scenes with Reese Witherspoon, who has collected the lion’s share of the show’s praise, Kidman presents Celeste as warm and inviting. (Think of her screaming “I fucking miss it” and enthusiastically pounding Madeline’s car horn.) When consoling Max after learning he has been abusing Amabella at school, a steely reserve coalesces with unflinching compassion, her mind connecting the dots between Perry’s battery and her son’s. “We all do bad things sometimes, all right?” Celeste whispers to Max, subtly convincing us her burdens are not insurmountable. Nicole Kidman, queen of the impassioned whisper, queen of the loaded gaze, queen of foggy resilience.
Saying we have entered a Nicole Kidman renaissance (Kidmaissance?) would be an erroneous shortcut. The quality of Kidman’s career has not waned since her bona fide Movie Star boom began in the mid-’90s and redoubled with a smattering of prestigious early-2000s star vehicles, namely “Moulin Rouge!,” “The Others,” “The Hours” (for which she won an Oscar) and “Cold Mountain.” Through these mainstream hits and various off-kilter indie outings ― “Dogville,” “The Human Stain,” “Birth,” “Fur,” “Margot at the Wedding” ― Kidman gained a reputation for playing ice queens, something that bled unjustly into her personal image amid a tabloid-strewn divorce from Tom Cruise in 2001.
Kidman’s cultural apex transpired in the few years immediately following the couple’s split, until a streak of big-budget disappointments ― “The Stepford Wives,” “The Interpreter,” “Bewitched,” “The Golden Compass,” “Australia” and “Nine” ― garnered middling reviews and signaled a minor identity crisis for one of the world’s most famous so-called serious actresses. The thing is, Kidman is the best part of most of these movies, often displaying a silliness that belies her frostier characters. It didn’t matter: Most people just wanted to talk about her new relationship with Keith Urban and what Botox may or may not have done to her face’s mobility.
This is a long-winded way of insisting that Kidman has always exhibited many angles, just as she does in “Big Little Lies.” By the early 2010s, it seemed her star had dimmed. In actuality, she opted for unconventional films with limited mainstream footprints: a mother grieving her dead son in “Rabbit Hole,” a vampy Southern half-wit in “The Paperboy,” an ominously unstable widow in “Stoker,” a battle-worn actress in “The Family Fang.” As quickly as “Grace of Monaco” languished in Harvey Weinstein controversies and withering reviews, Kidman re-upped her ice-queen villainy to dynamic effect in 2014’s “Paddington.” She has always been here, throwing consistent curveballs. Many just ducked too soon.
So, yes, attaching the word “comeback” to “Big Little Lies” would be unfounded. She was an Oscar nominee for “Lion” just last month, after all. Instead, we should trumpet the fact that Kidman did career-best work in the HBO limited series.
I know, I know: There’s no prosthetic nose, no “To Die For” scheming, no blitzed “Eyes Wide Shut” monologue. But this is Kidman at her most sophisticated. Celeste wants to be anything but an ice queen. That’s apparent in her relationships with Madeline and Jane (Shailene Woodley). But Perry’s violence threatens to turn her into one. It taints her, making her relationship a power struggle, and yet she clings to hope, convincing herself and her therapist that he’s actually a good person, that he’d never hurt the children, absolutely not. By the time Perry discovers Celeste’s clandestine apartment, the finale’s other plots ― including the murder reveal ― feel secondary to Celeste’s asylum. After she’s strove to defend her husband’s offenses, witnessing all remaining sympathy seep out of her is cathartic. Kidman knows that, so she punches every note a little harder. The victim becomes the authority. “They know what their father does to their mother,” Celeste tells Perry in the car at the school fundraiser, peering at him with all the scorn she’d blanketed for too long.
However sharp David E. Kelley’s writing, Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction and Liane Moriarty’s novel may be, Kidman’s “Big Little Lies” work transcends the material she was handed. Where Witherspoon’s tart-tongued performance operates in juxtaposition to the actress’ America’s-sweetheart reputation, Kidman is more of a blank canvas. Whatever half-baked estimations have been bestowed upon her career over the years, the varied roles Kidman has chosen complement the excellence of “Big Little Lies”: She is pliable and unpredictable. As Witherspoon made it obvious where Madeline’s arc was headed, and the wonderful Laura Dern set up Renata for a slate of impending apologies, Kidman portrayed Celeste as the most complicated of the bunch.
Across seven episodes, her wheels spun in defense of her regrettable marriage, in loyalty to her best friend and in hunger for the professional success she once enjoyed. That fusion is what made the “Avenue Q” boardroom confrontation with Renata so impressive ― in Kidman’s demeanor, we saw Celeste’s aptitude collide with the marital barriers that interrupted her life before the series’ curtain rose. As was the case during Kidman’s ascendency, a character bled into her personal life: “I still would probably choose a marriage and an intact family over my career,” she told Vanity Fair in 2002, reflecting on the Cruise divorce. Except, for Celeste, that choice was thrust upon her by the vicious Perry, a far knottier narrative. In keeping, Kidman played her as both a bulldog and an angel. We understood Celeste, we knew her, because Kidman gave us so many layers to delve into.
The rest of 2017 seems destined to reconfirm Kidman’s supremacy. In June, she will play a boarding-school matriarch in Sofia Coppola’s Southern Gothic horror feast “The Beguiled.” Later in the summer, the new “Top of the Lake” season will reunite her with “Portrait of a Lady” director Jane Campion. She’s also wrapped John Cameron Mitchell’s alien rom-com “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ dysfunctional-family drama “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” And, as if to remind us she is still worthy of blockbusters, Kidman will play Queen Atlanna in next year’s “Aquaman” ― her first superhero movie since the 1995 folly “Batman Forever” ― and star in a Kevin Hart comedy.
Like Kidman’s résumé, Celeste has ensconced herself in paradoxes: Her exterior is PTA perfection, her interior disheartening calamities. Kidman’s career has been building toward these complexities. Next time, let’s not forget it.