Nicole Kidman starts slowly but acts up a storm down the home stretch in “Strangerland,” a slow, opaque Australian psychological drama set in a small town in the bleakly beautiful desolation outside Canberra. She plays Catherine Parker, the wife of stern pharmacist Martin (Joseph Fiennes), and they’ve moved to the middle of nowhere from the capital with their two children, vivacious fifteen-year old Lily (Maddison Brown) and her younger brother Tom (Nicholas Hamilton), for reasons that are revealed in due course.

The Parker family dynamic is clearly troubled. Martin’s mood is perpetually sour, particularly when Lily makes a point of bouncing into the hallway in panties and bra to greet their handyman, the mentally challenged aborigine Bertie (Meyne Wyatt). The exhibitionism is apparently part of her naturally flirtatious nature, since Martin tells Tom not to let her out of his sight when they go off together. Tom, however, has problems of his own. He goes off for long walks by himself at night and is sullen over the move to a town he dismisses as a shithole. Catherine, meanwhile, broods while doing the housework while her husband goes off to work and the children—supposedly, at least—to school.

The plot kicks in when Catherine discovers one morning that Lily and Tom have disappeared, apparently into the surrounding desert, and a terrible sandstorm arises that might have buried them in the middle of nowhere or at least gotten them irretrievably lost Though Martin is reluctant to do so, she insists that they report the matter to local police detective Rae (Hugo Weaving), whose computer informs him that Lily has gone missing before; indeed, she’d been having an affair with one of her teachers in Canberra, and it was Martin’s assault on him that led to their having to leave the city. A little low-key sleuthing will reveal that Lily has not been sparing of her favors with the local lads either—including Bertie, whom eventually Martin will deal with along the same lines as that teacher in Canberra.

Some of the ensuing time in “Strangerland” will be spent on search operations to locate Lily and Tom, who are presumed to have wandered off into the unforgiving outback. To be sure, as the operation proves fruitless there is some muttering among the locals that the parents killed the children, but that suspicion is never taken to the extreme of “A Cry in the Night.” That part of the plot is relegated to the sidelines anyway, being rather cavalierly settled—at least in part—when Martin drives into the wild and finds Tom, emaciated and sunburned, by the simple expedient, it seems, of going in the opposite direction from the one Rae’s volunteers had taken.

What seems really important to writers Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons and to director Kim Farrant, however, isn’t the youngsters’ disappearance but the effect it has on the Parker parents—Catherine in particular. As the crisis wears on, her emotional state becomes increasingly fragile and she unravels into a state of sexual dishevelment, throwing herself not only at the unresponsive Martin but at Rae (who’s already involved with Bertie’s sister Coreen, played by Lisa Flanagan). At one point she wanders off into the desert by herself and reappears in the middle of town stripped down to her underwear.

What all that’s about is apparently the nature of female sexuality and the male’s drive to subdue and channel it to his own needs and expectations. Even Rae, who’s portrayed as a low-key, solemn fellow, is a user of women: his treatment of Coreen is not exactly gentlemanly, and it’s revealed that his wife has left him, along with their children, for unspecified reasons. The young studs at the town’s bicycle track, moreover, have certainly been more than willing to respond to Lily’s seductive proposals. But it’s Martin who’s most controlling. He would probably describe his attitude as protective, but it shows itself in explosions of violence against anyone he perceives to have taken advantage of “his” women. And his fury over his daughter’s transgressions—which, in the end, had led him effectively to conspire in her departure—spills over to his wife, whom he literally blames for Lily’s Lolita-like character. Cosi fan tutte, he implies, and Catherine responds by allowing what e would call her natural tendencies to run riot.

None of these dramatics come together in any coherent (or even incoherent) way, but Kidman certainly takes advantage of the opportunities they present to emote frantically, whether it be in her repressed state toward the beginning or the wild, trancelike abandon of the later reels. It’s certainly an arresting performance, though not at all a subtle one. Fiennes has the unenviable task of playing a man who keeps his emotions in simmering check except on the rare occasions when he loses control; he manages reasonably well, but the result isn’t very interesting. The heavily-bearded, easygoing Weaving, who often plays a villain, is the best-adjusted adult on display here, and it’s not surprising a viewer’s sympathy gravitates toward him. As for the kids, Hamilton is pretty much a cipher, while Brown’s coquettishness comes across as wildly overdone, just as Kidman’s unrestrained passion does in the picture’s final stages.

“Strangerland” certainly develops a strong sense of place, thanks to the extraordinary locations and P.J. Dillon’s gorgeous widescreen cinematography. But unfortunately that’s the only sort of sense the film ultimately affords.