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Published: Friday, 1/28/2011

Sadness and hope: Graceful performances ease the burden in a tale of loss

John Cameron Mitchell accomplishes that with graceful performances from his stars, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, which are filled with subtle moments as well as recognizable human frailties and flaws. Everyone deals with grief differently. There is no right answer, especially when it comes to coping with the unthinkable loss of a 4-year-old son. Rabbit Hole gets that notion and conveys it vividly, yet also offers some welcome glimmers of humor and even hope.

David Lindsay-Abaire adapted the screenplay from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Mitchell, who previously directed the subversive and sexually daring Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, would seem an unusual choice for such traditionally dramatic material. While Mitchell has expanded the scenery a bit, you still can never shake the sensation that you're watching a play on film. That draws attention to the structured theatricality of the work but also makes the more powerful moments hit home with a piercing directness.

Kidman does some of her most effective work in a while as Becca, a mother who fills her days methodically gardening and baking in her spacious home in a comfortable suburb along the Hudson River. She keeps herself busy to avoid thinking about her little boy, who was hit by a car eight months earlier. While her mother (Dianne Wiest, great as always) encourages her to talk about what happened, Becca will do anything to shut out the memories, shut off the pain.

But Eckhart, as her husband, Howie, wants to remember his son -- wants to trudge through the catharsis at group therapy sessions and revisit videos of the good times they shared. (That we never get a clear look at the boy's face, whether in pictures, videos or flashbacks, is an intriguing approach. It makes him more of a haunting concept, a ghostly presence.) Howie even wants to try and have another baby someday, keeping the child seat buckled inside the car just in case.

At a time when they should be supporting each other, working through their devastation and recovering together, they couldn't be further apart. When Howie tries to nuzzle up to Becca on the couch with some Al Green in the background, she bristles and accuses him of manipulating her, that's how tightly wound she remains. That Kidman is willing to make this character rigid, sometimes cruel, and downright unlikable is a testament to her courage as an actress.

From there, the disparate paths they follow are unexpected and fascinating -- the relationships they forge come fraught with emotional peril and potential marital harm. Howie strikes up a flirtatious friendship with another grieving mother (Sandra Oh) he meets in therapy, while Becca tries to find closure by secretly seeking out the teenager (Miles Teller) who was behind the wheel that fateful day. Rabbit Hole actually could have gotten a little weirder, even -- it pulls back just a bit, and too soon.

Again, there's no correct answer when it comes to coping with such a loss. But Rabbit Hole suggests that its characters are at least starting to ask the right questions.

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