There is arguably no star who has adapted to the rapidly changing entertainment industry as well as Nicole Kidman. After all, the last few years have seen the reputation of “bankable” actors count for less and less in mainstream cinema, as kid-friendly franchises and IP have grown more dominant. The result of this is that less mid-budget, adult-orientated movies are being made for multiplexes, with projects of this nature being stretched out into TV shows.
Perhaps sensing which way the wind was blowing, in 2017 Kidman executive produced and starred in Big Little Lies, a series which was a hit with critics and audiences alike. While the Aussie actress hasn’t left cinema behind by any means – appearing in challenging, excellent movies like Destroyer and The Killing of a Sacred Deer – nearly every year since Big Little Lies, she has starred in and/or executive produced a buzzy, prestige show, whether it be the second seasons of Top of the Lake and Big Little Lies or last year’s The Undoing. The success of these series has enabled her to remain in viewers’ heads as a star and work with interesting auteurs like Andrea Arnold, Jane Campion and Susanne Bier.
Nine Perfect Strangers is Kidman’s latest foray into TV and sees her adapting another novel of Liane Moriarty, who wrote the book Big Little Lies was based on. Executive producing again, the actress plays Masha, an enigmatic Russian woman who runs Tranquillum, a secluded health and resort which promises to heal the guests who stay there.
The series, co-created by David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies, The Undoing) and John-Henry Butterworth (Ford v Ferrari), follows nine guests at Tranquillum over 10 days of a retreat. Those seeking out the healing Masha offers include a best-selling author (Mellissa McCarthy), a journalist (Luke Evans), a bitter man with a mysterious past (Bobby Cannavale), a seemingly cheerful mother (Regina Hall), a young married couple (Melvin Gregg and Samara Weaving) and a grieving family (Asher Keddie, Grace Van Patten and Michael Shannon). Over the course of the show, we learn more about the nine strangers’ past and follow them on their journey to wellness. All the while, Masha’s methods of healing become increasingly unorthodox, eventually leading the guests to question if she is for real or if she is dangerous.
Right away, it must be said that Nine Perfect Strangers boasts a perfect TV show premise, both in regards to storytelling and in terms of being made during the Covid-19 pandemic. Putting nine strangers – all with trauma in their pasts – in a visually gorgeous yet confined space would always make for good drama. Indeed, watching them clash and spark off each other, before gradually forming tight-knit bonds is where much of the series’ emotion and heart lies.
On top of this is Kidman having fun vamping it up on the sidelines as this truly unknowable figure – giving Nine Perfect Strangers a thriller edge. While speaking to her guests, Masha comes across as charismatic, inspirational, and powerful. Viewers completely understand why those in her care would trust her completely, at least at first. However, there’s something about Masha that feels too good to be true – with her always perfectly composed demeanour occasionally coming across as rehearsed and stilted, making it feel like she is hiding something. Couple this, with how unconventional her methods of healing are and how she spies on her guests and treats her staff (Manny Jacinto and Tiffany Boone) like a cult leader would and there is more than enough mystery for nearly eight hours of TV.
Like Masha, Nine Perfect Strangers stylistically feels both alluring and seductive yet at times weird and unsettling. It’s opening credits are scored to Unloved ‘Strange Effect’, a band predominately featured in Killing Eve – another series where the underlying tension is its blend of light and dark. Meanwhile, director Jonathan Levine (50/50, Long Shot) helms each episode of the show and finds unique ways of highlighting these warring qualities.
The series begins with a close-up of delicious-looking fruit being whizzed in a blender, perhaps foreboding how Masha’s brand of wellness will ultimately be destructive to her guests. Also, the aesthetic of the show gradually becomes more stylised and surreal as it goes on, mirroring the headspace of its central characters. It’s worth noting too that this is one of those series where every episode ends with a shocking cliff-hanger or reveal that will have you craving more and more.
Where Nine Perfect Strangers maybe pales in comparison to the likes of Big Little Lies is in its characters, who all – at least at first – feel a tad simplistic. That said, it skirts around this issue by employing a phenomenal roster of well-cast character actors who add depth to roles that may not have it on the page.
Cannavale, arguably, steals the series as a man consumed by bitterness and anger who gradually softens and shows his vulnerability as the programme goes on. McCarthy is excellent too, delivering the lion’s share of Nine Perfect Strangers’ jokes – of which there are a surprising amount – while never sacrificing the more tragic elements of her character. Renowned for playing intense individuals, Shannon is wonderfully endearing as a typical goofball husband and father who nevertheless has darkness with him (he also sings multiple times which is incredible). Hall is entrancing as a woman possibly on the verge of madness struggling to maintain a sunny disposition while rising star Weaving adds unexpected life and vibrancy to the show’s biggest stereotype, a young model addicted to Instagram.
Having watched six of Nine Perfect Strangers’ eight episodes, I am curious to see if it will ultimately choose a stance on Masha’s methods of healing and whether it has anything substantial to say about mental health and overcoming trauma. That said, often the journey is more important than the destination and the show is certainly entertaining enough for audiences to seek it out. It also makes one wish that Kidman will continue to find potboiler novels about everyday human issues to adapt into lavish, star-studded TV programmes. Now, that is a franchise I can get behind.