Nicole Kidman sparkes crucial conversation about domestic violence

It must be somewhat incongruous to suddenly become the toast of the internet for inhabiting a role that made you dark and miserable, as Nicole Kidman has for the character Celeste in the HBO series Big Little Lies.

But when you're playing the part of a woman who dabs makeup on bruises inflicted by the man she loves, incongruity is also apt.

Kidman has told reporters that immersing herself in the character of a woman married to an abusive, violent, controlling man was a gruelling one.

While filming, she would return to her hotel room at night hunting for painkillers, covered in bruises.

She was most shattered by the brutal sex scenes, telling one reporter: "I just got lost in the role, more than I ever have before I'd go home at night and sit in the bath and cry. It really seeped into my psyche.

"I remember lying on the floor on the bathroom, really beaten up a lot, and just crying. I knew it was important to be as true and as deep as I could."

She told Vulture that over the course of her acting career: "that was the deepest I've gone in terms of finding and losing things."

Now Americans have momentarily abandoned talk of what Kidman does to her face to keep herself in work in Hollywood, and are again calling her a star, a phenomenon, a major talent, and calling for an instant Emmy.

Australia is exporting what it has learned about partner violence

But in all of the hubbub about Kidman's excellent, intricate performance, we should not lose sight of the fact that an Australian actor and executive producer (Kidman had both roles), and an Australian writer (Liane Moriarty was the author of the best selling book, originally set in Sydney) are provoking a crucial discussion about what partner violence looks like.

We are, in short, exporting some of what we have learned from difficult conversations over the past few years in this country.

The story of Big Little Lies is one of a group of school mothers; their relationships, affairs, friendships, frictions and desires as they bond and fight over a dispute about schoolyard bullying.

It is set in Monterey and coded with privilege; spacious, decorated houses with sweeping views of the sea, sculpted limbs in designer clothes, women who are able to choose to stay home, or work less, blow-dried hair and high heels at school drop-offs.

Through it all sweeps the tall, ethereal Celeste, played by Kidman, who conceals purple skin with concealer and turtle necks; a beautiful, wealthy woman with an ostensibly charmed life being terrorised and bashed by her equally attractive, successful husband.

Those who have suffered, witnessed or counselled abuse are hailing it as uncannily true to some women's experience.

Kidman's portrayal should challenge several ways of thinking.

1. The enduring myth that partner violence doesn't happen in 'nice' middle class families

Or to the wealthy; that privilege somehow protects.

Today, more and more prominent women are exposing this as a dangerous fiction.

Just in the past few days, we have seen images of bruised female celebrities who have allegedly been assaulted by their partners; photographs of a teary Melissa George, and the purple chins, black eye and scratched arms of Mel B remind us of intimate reigns of terror.

Mel B has just applied for a restraining order from husband Stephen Belafonte, detailing "multiple physical beatings" over a decade.

The pattern was, she claims, that he would often punish her for success: "When something good would happen for me, he would beat me down to let me know that he was in charge."

2. It should curb judgement of women who stay, and explain why

In Big Little Lies, Kidman's husband, played by Alexander Skarsgard, is not a simple villain.

He tells her he loves her and is sorry, and cries in her arms. He admits he is violent. We see him spoil her with jewellery, and witness intense — if perilous — sex.

We see her love for her children, and her belief that he is a wonderful father (though the fact that he often roars into scenes playing a monster to scare them is a bit unnerving).

Celeste blames herself for the violence and is at pains to point out that she punches back — spectacularly in one scene smashing her husband's rather large, possibly prosthetic, appendage, with a tennis racquet, damaging his urethra.

"You're lucky," he said when they returned from hospital, "that I didn't kill you."

We also see how he psychologically controls her by impressing upon her his own needs and vulnerability. She asks him to stop hurting her and he responds:

"Can we talk about how much you hurt me?"

He tells their counsellor he is insecure about his wife's love and scared she will leave him. She frowns, and feels for him.

When Celeste goes to counselling, it is not for vindication or blame, but a way to somehow improve the relationship, and make it healthier.

Their dynamic, she says, is just "volatile". She does not realize she is in danger until she sees the impact on her children of witnessing violence.

Instead of protecting them by staying, she is exposing them.

3. It should provide warnings about what is healthy — and harmful — in a relationship

Kidman powerfully portrays the torment and self-doubt of a woman who remains in love with a man who suffocates her, pulps her arms with his thumbs and throws her against walls.

We see how cruelty and control can be mistaken for passion when meshed with sexual desire, as though all heat were the same.

As Celeste says: "We're special. We love each other more. Everything is more intense for us. We have better sex."

Their hallmark, then, they believe, is passion, not dysfunction. Which we come to recognise as false, especially as it becomes less clear whether the sex is always consensual.

It was, Kidman told Variety, a "dance of death". And every dance has some element of seduction.

Which is something every woman walking gingerly in public, hiding black eyes behind glasses or mottled skin under fabric, should know.