16 JUNE 2003

Australian actress Nicole Kidman has signed up to star in a new film about British aid worker Emma McCune, who shocked British society by marrying a ruthless Sudanese warlord.

Emma was widely recognised for her humanitarian efforts, opening 110 schools in an area where there was no formal education. But she made a mixed impression on African society, as she embarked on an affair with guerrilla leader Riek Machar, chief of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army.

Riek was already married, with a wife and children living in Britain, but Emma agreed to a polygamous marriage and joined his rebel army. She survived kidnap attempts by rival militias, but was later killed in a car crash at the age of just 29. She was five months' pregnant at the time of her death.

The new film, which will be based on the biography Emma's War, is being produced by Hollywood heavyweights Ridley and Tony Scott. And Steve Knight, who garnered widespread critical acclaim for Dirty Pretty Things, is writing the script.

"Emma was one of those extraordinary figures that people gravitate towards," he said. "She was a product of the colonial system and a heroine in some ways, but fatally flawed."

One of Emma's friends also described the contradictions that came to define her. "She would come out of the swamps of hell, walk into my wardrobe in Nairobi and emerge looking like something out of Vogue. Then she'd be off to a dinner party."

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Nicole will be leaving her glamorous frocks behind when she enters the "swamps of hell" in Emma's WarPhoto: © AFP
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The new film is based on the biography of Emma McCune written by Deborah Scroggins