Baz Luhrmann is a filmmaker that doesn’t know the meaning of the word “small.” He paints in giant strokes with lavish creative flourishes that separate him from the pack of visionary auteurs. I’ve enjoyed every one of his films thus far and I fee that Moulin Rouge is a romantic touchstone that I can go back again and again to be dazzled and moved. I anticipated that Australia would be suitably grandiose in scope and style. While it suitably grandiose it definitely could have used some fine-tuning when it came to scope and style.
Australia follows the adventures of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) entering the land Down Under in 1939. Her husband owns a cattle ranch in the north called Faraway Downs. She suspects that her husband travels to Australia to get a bit more business down under, if you know what I mean. He’s been killed and the only witness is a half-white, half-aboriginal boy named Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters). It was customary for the Australian government to abduct mixed race children and ship them off to a church mission, where the tykes got to learn how to be servants for rich white people (this government policy only officially ended in the 1970s). Little Nullah hides on the Faraway downs ranch with his aboriginal mother. Lady Ashley must decide what to do with her strip of land. The local meat baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown), owns all the land surrounding Faraway downs and is close to maintaining a monopoly. Carney’s right hand man, Fletcher (David Wenham), has been keeping watch over Faraway Downs. Lady Ashley decides to hold onto the ranch and to drive the 1,000 head of cattle to sell at the town of Darwin. Carney orders Fletcher to stop the competition in its tracks. With little resources, Lady Ashley needs a rugged man to lead the cattle drive. The Drover (High Jackman) is a man of adventure and promises to deliver the cattle to their destination in Darwin. Through the course of 165 minutes Lady Ashley and the Drover will fall in love, Nullah’s freedom will be in jeopardy, and the Japanese will bomb Darwin in 1941.
The flick is ambitious, I’ll give it that. Just the title itself sets off an aim to summarize an entire country’s history, culture, and people in a declarative and definitive narrative. Somehow I doubt many will leave the theater and say, “Well, now that’s Australia.” Indeed, I find the film’s narrative to be a limp representation for a country. I suppose most big nationalistic history films start with the birth of nations, but when your country began as a repository for English criminals then I suppose you may want to find a different tale to tell. Australia is really three movies in one colossal package: a Western dust-up, a World War II disaster, and a dark history lesson over the country’s treatment of the aborigines. There is too much movie there, especially at a mammoth running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes. I almost think that Luhrmann believes that if he throws out enough storylines and emotions that somehow it will form a cohesive whole, but the pieces never truly mesh satisfactory. The kitchen sink method rarely works without a grander scheme. The war elements could have been dropped entirely considering that the Japanese bombing sneaks in at the very end of the film and serves little other purpose then decimating the town of Darwin. The movie just all of a sudden transitions into Australia at wartime, and various characters have new positions, like Lady Ashley serving as a phone operator. Where did any of this come from? It just sort of happens without any solid setup or transition despite a near three-hour length. You don’t need to nudge in World War II disasters just to introduce sustainable conflict. Australia is filled with moments where the plot or the characters make big leaps without justifying the transition. Lady Ashley goes from a lily-white upper-class fop to a tanned Outback rootin’-tootin’ adventurer over the course of mere minutes.
Director Luhrmann’s over-the-top visual style is absent and the movie feels strangely square, like Luhrmann is keeping his more manic abilities in check so he can tell an old school epic. But [i]Australia[/i] is not an epic despite a running time that would argue otherwise. It has gorgeous cinematography, gorgeous natural exteriors, and a pair of fairly good-looking leads (Jackman was named People Magazine’s sexiest man alive for 2008), but these are all components and not a finished product. I kept wanting Luhrmann to break free from his creative straitjacket and add some pizzazz and inspired sidesteps. It never happened. Lurhmann has been instrumental in the birth of Australia from beginning to end (he is credited with the screen story), but having such an idiosyncratic and surreal talent make a movie that is so backwards in approach and appeal is lunacy. This is not the best use of Lurhmann’s many talents. Australia has some gauzy and gaudy visuals but it feels altogether devoid of style, though it attempts to make up for that loss in sweep.
The true history of what happened to mixed race aboriginal children is appalling and certainly worth examination. So why then is Australia another case where the story of a minority’s oppression and tragedy must be told through the eyes of valiant white characters? Nullah’s story is far more interesting then Lady Ashley learning to be a country gal or the Drover learning to settle down. There is much more inherent drama in following a child who feels displaced and forever hunted because of his own genetics. That’s far more powerful than watching the tyke play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for the 80th time on his harmonica. Whenever Australia dips into serious statements on the plight of the unfortunate aboriginals, the movie feels very awkward. This is because “serious” is not what the movie does best at all. Australia is a large-scale attempt to revitalize that old-fashioned, sweepingly romantic Hollywood filmmaking of the 1950s. You could just as easily imagine John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in the starring roles, though the movie’s sensuality and outward comments on racial equality would have been tampered down. My point is that Australia is engineered to be this romantic spectacle that nearly overdoses on sentiment, so whenever it cuts to the aboriginals plight (something serious not in a silly movie sense) then it just seems tonally disjointed.
Let’s also talk about the depiction of the aboriginal people in Australia. Clearly Luhrmann has sympathy for these people and their persecution, and rightfully so. However, the movie turns the aborigines into magical otherworldly spiritual creatures. The depiction is similar to how Native Americans are seen in movies that take place in North America. The Native American is always seen as a being more in tune with nature and spirituality; they’re a “magic Indian” and always seem to possess supernatural powers and great wisdom. These portrayals are intended to be flattering but they really come across as hollow and condescending, transforming disadvantaged people into mystical and mysterious figures. Australia is packed with aborigines walking around, singing their songs to the wind, and having a near-psychic connection to the Earth and its inhabitants. There are several moments where King George, an old aboriginal man, will hum to himself and appear out of nowhere across thousands of miles to pose in a flamingo-like stance. It’s this sort of silly attempt at mystical reverence that stops the movie full-force when it touches upon the terrible realities of how the government treated the aborigines.
The actors do as best they can with such underwritten characters. Kidman found a perfect collaborator with Luhrmann on Moulin Rouge, a performance that deserved the Best Actress Oscar of that year. She has complete trust in Luhrmann. Her character is the typical role where someone from the outside adapts and finds a new home, which means Kidman is mostly comic and overacts in the beginning. She overdoes the comedy, expressing lines with a bit too much energy that almost seems against her will, like someone is pulling an invisible string to stretch her face into extreme expressions. I’ve always believed that Kidman could be a fine actress but honestly I don’t think I’ve loved a Kidman performance since 2001 with, yep, Moulin Rouge (she was quite fine in Dogville and The Interpreter). I’m starting to dread the thought that I may never see another Kidman performance that sets me afire. Jackman’s background in theater comes in handy when it comes to selling such melodrama and cheesy sentiment. He’s a handsome man and the movie takes great pains to showcase him shirtless. His character is another in a long line of solitary men who have to learn to reach out and love again despite the danger of being hurt. It’ all pretty standard for a Drover, naturally. Walters’ performance can at times be too cloying that it becomes grating. Eventually you do build a tolerance and he becomes more endearing than annoying. I had more fun with the supporting cast who can be relied on to offer glimpses of humor and menace.
I will say that I was rarely bored with the movie, though there are occasions that sag in the overly extended middle. Lurhmann still knows how to make an entertaining movie even if it’s one that generally plays by the book. The first third of the film, the cattle driving section, is the most successful and the most compelling, which is somewhat a backhanded compliment when the movie also deals with racial injustice. The stampede sequence is quite exciting and adds some needed action into the proceedings. From a technical standpoint, everything is staged well and looks refined, and my goodness does Walters have big dark soulful eyes that look pristine on the big screen. Kidman and Jackman’s big screen coupling will likely sate fans of romances between proper ladies and men with musk. Theirs is a romance thinly sketched but told with vigor. Australia is far too accomplished to be dismissed as a bad movie or a grandiose failure, but it never really settles into anything alluring or momentous.
You know what I’ll take away most from Australia? The term “drover.” Jackman’s character never has a real name, he is simply referred to as “Drover” or occasionally, “Mr. Drover,” as manners require after you sleep with a drover. He is not a “driver” of cattle but a “drover,” which sounds like a present use of a past tense. At one point little Nullah says in voice over, “The Drover drove them cheeky bulls.” Can you “druv”? When you are completed is called “droven”? I wonder if Australian school children ever had to diagram this sentence: “The Drover drove the cows until he had droven them far enough to druv.” This grammatical curiosity lodged in my brain and I amused myself elaborating on the “drover” vocabulary.
Now, Australia itself, as many locals will tell you, isn’t bad. It packs a lot of movie in 165 minutes but I just wish it had been a stronger movie. While the visuals are pleasing and the story is mildly engaging, Australia never justifies itself as the epic it so eagerly wants to become. The story is too disjointed and silly to be taken seriously and too square and stifled to be fun and energetic. Lurhmann is a filmmaker who has such limitless potential; he didn’t just resurrect the movie musical in 2001 but gave it a new language. Watching his talents get henpecked and hampered to tell a nostalgic old-fashioned romance that doesn’t resonate is like watching Gene Kelly paint. Sure it might work but the man just wasn’t meant for it. Which then makes it even more bizarre that Australia has been a passion project that Luhrmann has been working on for years. I don’t feel his passion or even his pride for his native land, though cattle drive tours might increase as a result. This is a movie that could have used more of Luhrmann’s brash and buzzy style. The only thing declarative about Australia is that Luhrmann should have been attached to a different movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Posted on November 22, 2008, in 2008 Movies and tagged action, baz luhrmann, ben mendelsohn, drama, essie davis, high jackman, nicole kidman, period film, romance, war, western. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.