Last Christmas when Navy officer John Ingram (Sam Neill) disembarked the train to spend the season with his wife Rae (Nicole Kidman) and their small son he immediately knew there was something wrong when they were not there to meet him. This suspicion was confirmed when two policemen walked up and escorted him to the hospital where his wife was lying barely conscious and their son had to be identified, because he had died in a car crash - the car being driven by Rae. For a while after that she has been waking up screaming thanks to the trauma, so will a holiday help?
It's a nice idea, and John being the sailor he is he probably thought getting out into the ocean where they can be alone to work things out in peace was the most beneficial activity Rae could take part in, but the best laid plans and all that. The George Miller-produced Dead Calm was the movie to make Kidman an international star, as from then on it was off to Hollywood (cynics say it was the sex scene that made her stick in the mind) and superstardom in a variety of different roles. Although you may have wanted to identify BMX Bandits as that breakthrough, it was as the damaged and increasingly resourceful Rae that saw celebrity welcoming her.
Hers was undoubtedly the star turn here, that in spite of strong showings by her two leading men, in a film based on a Charles Willlams book that had been the basis of one of those never completed Orson Welles movies from about twenty years before; he had called his version The Deep, no relation to the Peter Benchley adaptation from 1977. While movie buffs wondered if the Welles film would ever see the light of day (apparently enough footage was shot to be edited into a feature), director Phillip Noyce's stylings were more than adequate to be getting on with, and the way it made the open sea as alien and sinister a place as the Outback marked it out as an Australian film even if you hadn't noted the accents.
The plot was essentially a three-hander, as once tiny roles for the other characters are dispensed with in a matter of minutes we are concentrating on John and Rae and a certain other chap who appears a couple of weeks after they have been sailing around the azure Pacific Ocean. Making films on boats can be a tricky proposition when the weather is not something that can be counted on - ask the producers of Waterworld, for instance - but here they were very lucky (or very patient) as the conditions at the beginning of the trip are as dead calm as the title suggested. Then John spots a vessel nearby, cannot make contact with it over the radio, and wonders if everything is all right.
It might have been if they had stayed away, but curiosity gets the better of the Ingrams and it's then they see the dinghy heading towards them, rowed frantically by one Hughie (Billy Zane), a handsome stranger agitatedly claiming the rest of the crew were wiped out by a food poisoning outbreak of which he is the sole survivor. And the band played believe it if you like, so John takes the dinghy over to the sailboat to discover what is up for himself, leaving Rae alone on their craft. Oh, they've locked Hughie in the bedroom while he sleeps just in case, but you can see where this is going, and Noyce employed horror movie scares to the thriller model which ensured the tension was achieved with some accomplishment. Actually, rather than a three-hander Dead Calm could be seen as a solo effort edited into a two-hander as John is stranded and Rae has to draw on untapped wells of ingenuity to keep going, and her dire circumstances force her to difficult positions playing out as neatly stripped down thrills. Music by Graeme Revell.