Nicole Kidman is at her best in roles that require a certain quiet, desperate intensity. Witness her turns as a ghostly mother in "The Others," as tortured writer Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," and now in "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus." Her restrained but raw delivery and expressive, searching eyes lend a weight to parts that might, in the hands of lesser actors, come across as brooding, or worse, boring.
Arbus was born into a world of privilege and its attendant expectations: She was supposed to marry, have children and help run her husband's business, which just happened to be a successful commercial photography studio. She did all of this, succeeding for the most part to tamp down a growing sense of disquiet, a need to expand her world beyond the walls of her safe, predictable New York City apartment.
When she sees a strange new neighbor moving into her building, his face covered in a mask, her curiosity is piqued, and she sets about discovering what she can about the mysterious man, whose presence creates unexplained occurrences, like clogged pipes and men traipsing up the stairs, bald heads bowed, and descending with their domes covered in brand new hair.
Arbus' eventual interaction with masked neighbor Lionel (Robert Downey Jr. in yet another superlative performance) is played out in scenes that would not be out of place in a thriller, suspense and surprise building to an unexpected resolution. To reveal much more about Arbus' and Lionel's relationship and its effect on her carefully choreographed life would be to spoil much of the pleasure to be found in its delicate unfurling.
Despite the movie's dependence on darkness and muted light to achieve a generally bleak tone, cinematographer Bill Pope makes wonderful use of color, juxtaposing Arbus' gray and brown apartment with the bold splashes of red, green and blue in Lionel's attic retreat. Kidman's wardrobe evolves alongside her character, moving from unassuming creams and grays into a bolder, more energetic palette.
Director Shainberg ("Secretary") guides his dreamlike film with a sure but trusting hand, smartly giving most of his gifted cast ample space to explore the complexities of their roles. The exceptions are Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander, fine actors forced into caricatures as Diane's overbearing, class-obsessed parents. The movie's other weakness is its periodic dependence on shock value, the perceived "freakishness" of peripheral but key characters -- a choice that undercuts the film's message that art, like beauty, can be found everywhere we look.
Downey and Kidman share a chemistry; they also share what may be the year's most erotic love scene. Downey, who is required here to act primarily with his eyes, succeeds in seducing not only Kidman's character but also his audience.
The supporting cast is also strong, most notably Ty Burrell as Arbus' physically diffident husband, Allan, whose desperation becomes more and more apparent as his wife's new life and new creativity takes precedence over his demands and those of their two young children. He's too late; Arbus has already made the leap from bourgeois safety into something far less comfortable and infinitely more rewarding. It's an apt allegory for the film.
'Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus'
Directed by Steven Shainberg; screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, loosely based on the book "Diane Arbus: A Biography" by Patricia Bosworth; photographed by Bill Pope; edited by Kristina Boden and Keiko Deguchi; music by Carter Burwell; production design by Amy Danger; produced by Laura Bickford, Patricia Bosworth, Andrew Fierberg, William Pohlad and Bonnie Timmermann A Picturehouse release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:52.
Diane Arbus -- Nicole Kidman
Lionel -- Robert Downey Jr.
Allan Arbus -- Ty Burrell
David -- Harris Yulin