Nicole Kidman. The name conjures many images and associations: the tumble of red curls and pert, blue-eyed face of the star as a young newcomer to the screen; the marriage to Tom Cruise and ensuing escape from Scientology; the lithe physique and dewy features that she wears easily to this day. But one phrase we often forget to attach to her is "great actress".

Perhaps because of her demeanour of self-effacing, even demure, modesty, it's been easy to underestimate Kidman over the course of a career that now spans three decades. But this week has offered a reminder of why we should prize an actress who has fashioned one of the most fascinating careers in a business notorious for pigeonholing its starlets early, keeping them boxed in and discarding them when their physical attributes show signs of sagging, bagging or otherwise naturally evolving.

Kidman has largely escaped that trap, as anyone who watched the recent HBO series Big Little Lies can attest. The stylish, compulsively engrossing thriller-slash-domestic-melodrama turned out to be a sleeper "peak TV" hit largely on the strength of its ensemble cast, which included Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley and Kidman, who played the abused wife of a prosperous executive.

Kidman - who co-produced with Witherspoon - was a standout in the series, her portrayal of a woman fighting for her own physical and psychic survival radiating shame, ambivalence, glazed confusion, determination and barely perceptible ripples of latent power. Never showy or gratuitous, it was a performance as fine-grained as the porcelain that her doll-like character, Celeste, sometimes seemed to be made of.


No sooner had Kidman delivered a powerhouse with Big Little Lies than she whipsawed her audience into another direction entirely: In Queen of the Desert (which screened in New Zealand last year), she portrays the storied explorer, writer and photographer Gertrude Bell, a contemporary of T.E. Lawrence who travelled the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century and helped redraw the region's national boundaries after World War I.

Written and directed by Werner Herzog with an uncharacteristically blunt and stodgily sentimental hand, Queen of the Desert isn't a great film. In fact, it's often a very bad one. But none of its faults lie with Kidman, who dominates the screen in nearly every shot with regal composure and restraint (and, apparently, a generous supply of SPF-50 sunscreen).

Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley star in Big Little Lies.
Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley star in Big Little Lies.

This is a familiar dynamic in Kidman's filmography: She's made some famous duds, most recently the overbaked historical pseudo-epic Australia, the deliciously campy The Paperboy and the ill-advised Grace Kelly biopic Grace of Monaco. But even in her worst movies, Kidman is never the problem; her performances rise above whatever dreck they're in, as if her supreme self-possession as a performer inoculated her against the toxic material she was working with.

And the bad movies are relatively thin on the ground compared with the myriad triumphs: She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours (we're still arguing about that nose), but that was a full seven years after her astonishing portrayal of a fame-hungry TV journalist in To Die For, in which she permanently shut up the doubters in a triumphantly crafty, satirical turn.

One need only consider Kidman's vanity-free supporting appearance in last year's Lion, alight quickly on Moulin Rouge! and The Others and go all the way back to her breakout roles in Dead Calm and Days of Thunder to appreciate the rigour and expressive range of an actress who can easily hold her own with the Meryl Streeps, Viola Davises and Cate Blanchetts of the world but is rarely mentioned in their company.

Rigour, range and - most crucially - curiosity: Just as admirable as the performances have been Kidman's choices when it comes to material and the film-makers she wants to work with. Ever since becoming a star, she's made small, artistically risky films that may not have had an upside where finances or fame or fan service were concerned but pushed the medium in exhilarating and sometimes strange, even alienating ways. For every conventional Hollywood production such as Cold Mountain or The Interpreter, she's made a chilly, Brechtian experiment in actorly submission, such as Lars von Trier's Dogville, or supported a still-emerging film-maker, as in Jonathan Glazer's superb spiritual thriller Birth.

Nicole Kidman, left, is kissed by Keith Urban at the 52nd annual Academy of Country Music Awards . Photo / AP
Nicole Kidman, left, is kissed by Keith Urban at the 52nd annual Academy of Country Music Awards . Photo / AP

Not many people saw Kidman's mesmerising portrayal of the photographer Diane Arbus in the boundary-breaking film Fur, or her turn as a grieving mother in Rabbit Hole, or as the traumatised grown-up daughter of self-involved artists in The Family Fang. But she has become one of the industry's most valuable and adventurous side players, a headliner who - Q Scores and "likeability" be damned - leverages her gifts and box-office pull in service to pushing the art form forward.

It should surprise no one that her upcoming projects include the edgy, feminist TV mystery series Top of the Lake and films with Sofia Coppola and the Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster).

Last year, writing about actress Isabelle Huppert in the New Republic, critic Miriam Bale noted that in the movie Elle, Huppert herself became an auteur, her craft and potent persona transcending the material and taking a hand in creating the movie that was every bit as crucial as the director's. The same, writ even larger, could be said for Kidman, whose shrewd auteurist eye is revealed not just in one movie but through the arc of her career.

In an industry dedicated to escapism, shallow reassurance and dumbing down, she has single-mindedly pursued thoughtfulness, intelligence and risk, as an actor and a producer.

Her genius is just as strategic as it is technical, in how she's consistently leveraged stardom on behalf of growth, taste and sophistication. With her preternatural technical and physical gifts, she easily could have sleepwalked through the past 30 years. Instead, she's kept her eyes wide open.