Director : Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay : Stuart Beattie and Baz Luhrmann & Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan (story by Baz Luhrmann)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Nicole Kidman (Lady Sarah Ashley), Hugh Jackman (the Drover), David Wenham (Neil Fletcher), Bryan Brown (King Carney), Jack Thompson (Kipling Flynn), David Gulpilil (King George), Brandon Walters (Nullah)
Australia is Baz Luhrmann’s first film since 2001’s postmodern musical pastiche Moulin Rouge!, and I am genuinely surprised that he opted not to put an exclamation point at the end of his magnum opus’ title given the passion with which he tears into this outback romantic epic. With its James Michener-esque title, Australia promises a heaping slice of history served up on a hot plate of melodrama (or is it the other way around?), and Luhrmann doesn’t disappoint in that respect. Those expecting more of the hyper-edited mélange and production design-overkill of Moulin Rouge! and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) will find Australia, which is set in the years immediately preceding World War II, to be a much more refined beast, although it takes Luhrmann the first half hour to get all the ridiculousness out of his system before he can settle into the epic aesthetic the material so firmly demands.
The first 30 minutes of Australia are, in fact, quite dreadful, as Luhrmann sets the stage with an aggravating mixture of goofy but largely unfunny physical comedy, outsized caricatures that make you wonder if he’s trying to out-stereotype Crocodile Dundee, and silly animated graphics that do little more than illustrate that Mother England is really far away from Australia. All of this is narrated with dizzying and often annoying enthusiasm by a young boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), whose mixed-racial status (his mother is an Aborigine but his father is white) means that he is caught in a no-man’s land within mid-century Australia’s highly structured racial caste system. The plight of the Aborigines and, in particular, the mixed-race children who are disparagingly called “creamies,” is threaded throughout the film’s many plots and subplots, but unfortunately it reduces the Aborigines to mystical “Others” whose historical mistreatment is remedied via their depiction as sacred victims.
The film’s main character is Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat who travels to Australia to check on her cheating husband, who owns a cattle station deep in the Northern Territory. Her husband is killed just before she arrives, supposedly by an Aboriginal mystic known as King George (David Gulpilil, who played the wandering boy in Nicolas Roeg’s marvelous 1971 film Walkabout), but was more likely killed by the minions of King Carney (Bryan Brown), the cattle baron who owns all the surrounding lands. Sarah decides to take it upon herself to salvage the family business, and she enlists the help of the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rugged, chiseled cattleman who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Harlequin romance novel. They put together a motley crew to drive 1,500 head of cattle across the Northern Territory, which produces the film’s best stretch, replete with a magnificently suspenseful stampede sequence and growing romance between the recently widowed Sarah and the gruff Drover, who previously had nothing between them but mutual animosity.
That is only the film’s first half, however, and if Australia had been made in the road show era of the 1950s there would have been an intermission before the story picks up again with Sarah and the Drover creating a make-shift family with the orphaned Nullah as their adopted child before various events drive them apart and leave them stranded just as Australia is dragged into World War II when the Japanese bomb the northern coast soon after Pearl Harbor. This gives Luhrmann his second good stretch of spectacle, as he uses the sudden violence of war to escalate the story’s narrative tensions, including the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic travails of Sarah and the Drover, as well as the nefarious plotting of King Carney’s even more malicious successor Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). Luhrmann certainly invests in the film’s scope, but like his other films, Australia is at its best in the smaller moments. I remember well that the only truly moving moment in his Romeo + Juliet is when the star-crossed lovers discover each other on opposite sides of a fish tank and gaze into each other’s eyes with a genuine sense of rapture, and there are a few moments in Australia when Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman capture that essence.
In every frame of Australia you can feel Luhrmann reaching for greatness (or at least fabulousness), and it is precisely the constant omnipresence of those epic ambitions that ultimately sink the film. Even though it recovers well from those awful opening scenes, Australia always has the essence of something contrived and slightly phony, even when you sense Luhrmann’s intense sincerity beating beneath the silliness. It also doesn’t help that the film’s special effects are frequently subpar, with scenes being so obviously the work of green screens and digital compositing that they rob the film of the sense of location that is so crucial to epics of this sort. Granted, when they do shoot on location, Luhrmann and cinematographer Mandy Walker (Lantana) draw out the majesty of the land with sweeping aerial shots that remind us of what’s grand and wonderful about filmmaking on this level, but it ultimately leaves you wishing that Luhrmann had found a way to better integrate his more excessive tendencies or leave them out altogether.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © 20th Century Fox