Nicole Kidman Grieves, Glazes Creme Brulee in Rabbit Hole 

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Rabbit Hole
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

Nicole Kidman aims a blowtorch at her ice queen image with this one, obliterating it as deftly as her character, Becca, glazes a perfect crème brulee. Kidman produced Rabbit Hole too—and not just by using her name to attract funding or attending a few meetings. She bought the film rights when Rabbit Hole was still playing on Broadway (where it wound up winning a Pulitzer), enlisted the playwright, David Lindsay-Abaire, to adapt his script into a screenplay, and lined up John Cameron Mitchell, the diva-director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, another fiercely truthful tale about a character fighting for her emotional life. Along with costars Aaron Eckhart (who plays Becca's husband, Howie) and Dianne Wiest (as her mother, Nat) and a uniformly excellent supporting cast, Kidman and her collaborators have created a tactfully but powerfully moving movie for grownups, which includes the best work the actress has done in years.

As a mother fighting to regain her emotional footing after the death of her four-year-old son, Kidman seems at first to be playing yet another too-tightly-buttoned control freak, making like Martha Stewart in an Architecture Digest-ready house on a hill overlooking the Hudson. But Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell pull you into Becca's and Howie's internal lives rather than pinning them under a magnifying glass and watching them squirm, as movies about tormented couples so often do.

As we watch Becca go about her daily life, putting on her clothes like costumes and her expression like a mask, we start to see how hard she's working just to get herself through the day—and how hard she's trying to spare the people around her, even as her tightly suppressed grief and rage keeps leaking out, and, occasionally, exploding. The dialogue rarely feels like speechifying, and even when it does it sometimes works, as in a beautifully written monologue Nat delivers about how "the weight of it all" shifted over time as she learned to live with the death of her own son. Even that glazed, too-smooth look Kidman has acquired over the years works here, when Becca is hit by a wave of grief so unexpected it knocks down her defenses, leaving just that stunned, frozen face.

Lindsay-Abaire has a good feel for the rhythms of intimacy, both in Becca's marriage and in her dealings with her mother and her rebellious younger sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard). There's clearly a lot of love in all those relationships, but buttons can be pushed with frightening ease, so conversations and situations that start out quiet, even cosy, can blow up at a moment's notice. Nobody is always right or always wrong, and people often fail to say the right thing even when they mean well. There's also an inevitability that feels right in how everything always circles back to the hole left by the death of the boy, like water flowing down a drain.

Some of the plot devices feel a little too pat, like the conveniently created comic book that gives the movie its title and overarching metaphor, or the parallel secret relationships Becca and Howie develop, both of which come to a cathartic resolution on the same day in a breathlessly cross-cut scene. But there's real life in this film and these characters, and real heartache and wit in the dialogue (when Howie denies that he's trying to "rope" Becca into having sex, she stares at him stonily. "Al Green isn't roping?" she says. "Al Green?"). And there's enormous pent-up power in the acting, which lingers after the movie ends.

Opens December 17

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