Dead Calm (1989)



-A Voyage into Fear-

Sam Neil, Nicole Kidman & Billy Zane / Cinematography Dean Semler / Novel by Charles Williams / Art Direction Kim Hilder / Produced George Miller / Directed Phillip Noyce

Belle de Jour gazed at Deneuve, ‘Man created Woman’ ogled at Bardot, ‘Girl on a Motorcycle’ was in love with Marianne Faithfull..and Dead Calm is psychotically obsessed with Nicole Kidman. On the surface it’s your typical ‘nutter after your girlfriend’ deal, but in actual fact has more in common with Polanski’s Repulsion than the usual psycho sexual thrillers of the late 80’s & early nineties. Which is rather odd really, considering the sort of films we expect from Cinematographer Dean Semler (Cocktail, K.9, Waterworld..mind you, he did shoot Dances with Wolves) & Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Saint, The Bone Collector..)..but I imagine George Miller (of Mad Max fame) had a more hands on role than just Producer. Miller also went on to direct Kidman in the wonderful TV play ‘Bangkok Hilton’.

This three character play set in the isolation of a sailing trip begins with a feeling of tranquility, before closing us into a sexual claustrophobia that both unnerves and curiously attracts the viewer. Dead Calm luxuriates in a continuous series of close-ups on Kidman that push focal lengths to straining point, and it is in Kidman’s ability to act so well when the tiniest flicker of the eyes or twitch of the nose (pun intended) is magnifyed to infinity, that goes some way to explaining both the power of the film, and the sudden attention that Hollywood paid her after a succession of comparatively forgettable roles. That and a nice publicity deal with Tom Cruise.


Kidman and Neil are recovering from the trauma inflicted by the loss of their child in a car crash in which Kidman almost lost her life. This and Sam Neil’s arrival ashore after the accident (his Navy uniform letting us know that he is an experienced sailor) mark some of the few moments in the film when peripheral characters are seen. The couple take an ocean cruise aboard their boat away from the world, but a mysterious storm wracked ship brings a third character onboard, a psychotic Billy Zane. Neil goes aboard the damaged boat, finds the crew murdered and winds up trapped there when Zane takes both Kidman & their boat on a cruise of his own. Neil now finds himself aboard a sinking ship, and Kidman must deal with Zane and rescue her husband before he drowns.

Sam Neil is dependable, strong, loving, mature and a little boring.. Kidman on the other hand is young (a very vivacious 22 at the time) and despite the bond that the couple clearly exhibit, the audience naturally pairs up Kidman & the young, handsome (though admittedly psychotic) Billy Zane. Were this a straight forward romance, these would be the two we’d want to get together. The impression is given that Kidman & Neil haven’t been sleeping together since the accident, and that the voyage is an attempt to reignite their passions as well as their relationship. Neil gets his small share of close-ups, the most prominent of which is his longing gaze at Kidman swimming langorously beside the ship before the rude interruption of their guest.



Zane and Kidman play cat & mouse aboard the ship, and whilst there is the obvious threat that this intruder exudes, Zane is curiously gentlemanly in his dealings with Kidman, reserving violent outbursts to rectify attempts to reverse the ship’s course and after what he perceives as a betrayal in the closing scenes. He is of course a killer, and holding Kidman captive, but he’s not very physical with her on the most part. Indeed, it’s Kidman who takes the initiative. Sleeping with the devil, so to order to gain his trust long enough to seize control of the ship. No condemnation or complicity of the female role, but the scenario is cooked up with the express intention of sexualising Kidman, although superficially the events are a device to  strengthen the couple’s flagging marriage and supply audiences with a strong empowered female character who can look after herself without being reduced to macho-posturing. Most actresses make the concession that a revealing performance will pave the way to quality roles, but aside from the short moments of nudity, this was a good quality film and nothing to be ashamed of. The photography is beautiful and the minimal script allows for some powerfully visual scenes and subtle acting of real note. Hitchcock would have enjoyed the intensity..though of course he would have rathered a blonde to observe.




– This isn’t the only outing for the Dead Calm novel by Charles Williams written in 1963. Roman Polanski’s ‘Knife in the Water’ had more than a passing resemblence to ideas in the book, and Orson Welles practiacally bankrupted himself with his uncompeted version titled – ‘The Deep’. The odd still is floating around but little footage.

– Sam Neil has suffered with a stutter since childhood and manages to keep the impediment under control by maintaining a relaxed demeanor and gentle speech pattern. A characteristic which strongly defines his acting style if you think about it.

– Kidman maintains that she was asked to dye her hair red for her role in BMX Bandits (1983) and kept the colour since it was popular with casting agents. None too convinced myself, I know a natuaral redhead when I see one. The sooner Miss.Kidman changes that fake blonde look the better..where’s a nice casting agent when you need one?








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