Nicole Kidman has become too strong – we should have been more careful. In assuming that she could take on any role she liked just because she is a superb actor, we took our eye off the ball. And in Nine Perfect Strangers Kidman proves that, unchecked, her power is a dangerous force that lets her get away with almost anything.
Tranquillum: that’s the name of the wellness retreat that Masha, Kidman’s character, runs not like a hotel but like one of the rooms in the film Saw. She keeps watch on her guests with hidden cameras, puts drugs in their smoothies without their consent and has a (presumably) Russian accent akin to a Bond villain. Even before we talk about the name, Tranquillum is exceptionally dodgy.
Every retreat needs willing pilgrims, and Nine Perfect Strangers (based on a novel by Liane Moriarty) assembles a magnificent cast. In among the desperate, hoping-to-be-saved ensemble is Melissa McCarthy’s Frances, a romance writer in the middle of an existential crisis, Bobby Cannavale, who plays a misanthropic drug user called Tony, and Michael Shannon, who arrives not just with his wife and daughter but also with the name Napoleon Marconi. While a different tragedy hangs over each character (ranging from “our son committed suicide” to the slightly-less-tragic “I won the lottery and drive a Lamborghini”), by the end of their 10-day stay in this spectacularly weird place the group hope to have been reborn.
It starts promisingly, Nine Perfect Strangers. But there is no point denying that as soon as Masha enters the scene, things get decidedly less interesting. Floating in like an “Eastern bloc unicorn”, as Frances puts it, Masha takes the whole show out of the real world. Kidman’s looks are capable of being subsumed into fascinating characters – something that David E. Kelley, who co-created this show, knows well from when he wrote for Kidman in Big Little Lies and The Undoing – but, untethered from reality, Masha is absolutely ludicrous: a long-haired wood nymph kissing everyone and saying things like, “Have you ever been a vehicle for growth?” The show seems to assume that because everyone worships Masha, we would be foolish not to.
This is where Nine Perfect Strangers misses an opportunity. Masha could have been written as a critique of the excesses of the contemporary wellness industry. Even if this intention is there, it suffocates under Kidman’s hair. Elsewhere, however, the characters are at times beautifully and agonisingly portrayed: the blossoming friendship between Frances and Tony is touching, and the well of pain at the heart of the Marconi family is, at times, genuinely difficult to bear.
But with a cast of nine (plus Masha and two employees, one of whom is played by Manny Jacinto as though he is sleepwalking) people will get short-changed. There are characters who grate, feel insubstantial or don’t make any sense, and the show begins to spend too much time indulging them. With a different CEO and maybe seven strangers, this could have been perfect. As it is, it feels like one of the hallucinations of the show’s guests – and not in a good way.
Nine Perfect Strangers is available to stream on Amazon Prime on August 20