Bunny Slope

Nicole Kidman tumbles brilliantly into despair

Rabbit Hole is a tough sell. It's based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, not a hit video game or comic book. (Goodbye, teen viewers!) The two leads — Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart — are best known as actors, not stars who put asses in theater seats. Plus, the subject matter — a middle-class couple mourns the loss of their four-year-old son — will turn off a huge segment of moviegoers.

And it's a shame, because Rabbit Hole is every bit a movie worth seeing. Its utter lack of sensationalism — or phony, souped-up melodrama — makes it so refreshing, even profound.

David Lindsay-Abaire's 2006 Broadway play was an extended fugue about grieving done in the style of a modern chamber piece. While some of that intimacy is inevitably lost in the translation to screen, enough remains to give the film an almost hushed stillness that is the very antithesis of most contemporary American movies, where mindless sensation rules. (Ironically, the addition of close-ups lessens, rather than intensifies, the bruising impact of Lindsay-Abaire's eloquent, naturalistic prose.)

Kidman and Eckhart play Becca and Howie, a late-thirtysomething married couple living a seemingly ordinary yupscale existence in a New York City bedroom community. But tell-tale signs indicate that something is amiss. There are children's drawings on the refrigerator but no kid in sight. We notice a bedroom that sits curiously vacant.

As it turns out, Becca and Howie are still reeling from the accidental death of their toddler son Danny eight months earlier. Neither is quite certain how to move on. Do they strip the house of all remaining vestiges of Danny, including those refrigerator drawings? Or would it be more compassionate to let his spirit continue to dwell among them, even if it's simply by refusing to clear out his old room?

Group therapy sessions with other grieving parents don't dull the pain. Becca's mother Nat (Diane Wiest) and kid sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) are less helpful than merely intrusive. Neighbors and co-workers tiptoe around their unspeakable void, which just makes things worse. "Things aren't nice anymore," Becca finally blurts out to Howie in a rare moment of candor.

Lindsay-Abaire adapted his play for the movie and intelligently opens it up for the new demands. Characters alluded to onstage become corporeal presences; settings that were only discussed previously (like Becca and Howie's therapy sessions and a neighborhood park) are now visible elements of the drama.

John Cameron Mitchell's sensitive direction is a break from his outre, self-penned material like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. He elicits superbly empathetic performances from his lead actors (both Kidman and Eckhart are at the top of their game here), without pushing either into the sort of teary bathos the material would seem to encourage.

Because of the necessary script deletions and restructuring, Nat and Izzie make less vivid impressions than they did on Broadway, but Wiest and especially Blanchard make every second of screen time count.

If Rabbit Hole is ultimately less moving on screen than it was as a play, it remains a terrific actor's showcase. Anyone who values great performances can't afford to miss it.

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