Movie Review: Australia

Directed by Baz Luhrman
Drama, 165 Minutes

One of the great pleasures of the movies is seeing what a purposeful filmmaker can do with an old genre or story by attempting to remake it in her or his own image. Such was the case with Baz Luhrman’s last film, 2001’s Moulin Rouge, his hyperkinetic reinvention of the movie musical. Now, in Australia, he takes on the historical film with similarly ambitious and innovative designs, though somewhat less successful results.

Despite a title that suggests a film as sprawling as an entire continent, Australia actually employs a fairly intimate story, which it attempts to stretch across a wide canvas.  Focusing on the short span of 1939-1942, Luhrman showcases his homeland in a time of turmoil, on the brink of World War II. English noblewoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) journeys Down Under to join her husband, who is managing a remote cattle station while his finances at home suffer. Determined to sell the station to save the family fortune, she arrives to find her husband recently murdered, perhaps by an Aboriginal mystic named King George (David Gulpilil). With the help of a handful of servants and a charismatic Aussie roughneck known simply as Drover (Hugh Jackman), Lady Ashley attempts to save the station by moving her 1500 head of cattle overland to the port of Darwin, where the army is buying beef to feed the troops gathering for war. But opposing her is the appropriately named King Carney (Bryan Brown), a larger-than-life cattle baron in an 11-gallon hat who is trying to corner the market in beef and make a killing. Aiding him in his war profiteering is the duplicitous Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), a former employee of Lord Ashley recently dismissed by his new mistress for his brazen dishonesty.

All the classic elements of a good old-fashioned yarn are in place here, and for much of the film’s first half, the results are engaging enough to deliver just that: an Australian western cross-bred with romantic-comedy adventure ( Red River meets The African Queen). But as the proper English lady melts into the arms of the free-spirit adventurer, the romance turns poignant and Out of Africa comes calling, never to quite go away. Australia has the virtue of not trying to gloss over its plot clichés, stereotyped characters, or obvious borrowings from other films—rather, it embraces them and has fun with them en route to a serious change in tone at midpoint. The image of Australia as untamed and rowdy is played up for all it’s worth in the opening scenes, and the clever meeting between Lady Ashley and Drover occurs during a bar fight that could have been staged by John Ford. But there are more serious intentions underlying the roughhouse, and the film’s second half becomes a grim historical drama centered around the horrific destruction of Darwin by the Japanese a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The attack on Darwin is well staged, if a bit scant on detail, but the film gets bogged down in the standard ploy of positioning lovers against a backdrop of impending doom, which constantly threatens to tear them apart. And so the enjoyable, old-fashioned movie romanticism of part I gives way to the overwrought, will-they-or-won’t-they-survive melodrama of part II.

What rescues Australia from its derivative nature and gives it a more unique identity is the space it creates for Aboriginal culture and magic. The two halves of the film are ingeniously organized around the point-of-view of Australia’s Aboriginal population, represented by King George and his grandson, Nullah, a ten-year-old of mixed race under Lady Ashley‘s protection. Their viewpoints are so closely associated with Australia’s wild landscape from the outset that it’s as if the land itself—pictured in stunning views of lush vegetation, sunset-painted rock formations, and shimmering spans of desert—is watching the white settlers’ futile attempts to tame an environment whose spiritual dimension lies, untamable, beyond their comprehension.  In an almost supernatural way, King George observes nearly everything that happens from his own special—and sometimes, it seems, invisible—vantage point.  Complementing his grandfather’s vision, Nullah provides the movie’s voice. His sometimes song-like narration offers not only wry commentary on the whites he lives with but introduces a second historical theme, the tragic history of the “Lost Generations,” mixed-race children stolen from their families and trained to be servants in European households. The film’s outward events of adventure, romance, and war are molded around the core of this previously hidden story, and Lady Ashley’s ascent to true heroine status comes with her brave defiance of the racist practice.

The two principals, Kidman and Jackman, are an easy-on-the-eye couple, to say the least, and they demonstrate authentic screen chemistry to match. There’s no reason for their characters to meet except to fall in love, and they oblige with conviction. Kidman plays a feisty, liberated woman with the proper panache, and some good comic timing, her brittle, overbearing manner convincingly softened first by grief,  then by determination, and finally by love. As she commits to the land that takes her in—it’s Australia we’re all meant to fall for, of course—she commits even more deeply to the orphaned Nullah, whose sweetness, vulnerability, and wisdom are winningly captured by newcomer Brandon Walters in the most emotionally genuine performance of the film. His affecting scenes with Kidman help the actress find the tenderness she needs to transform Lady Ashley into a person of real depth.
The men, on the other hand, offer an amusing clinic on screen machismo, befitting the brawny land they symbolize. Jackman is as comfortable in his role as he is in his skin, which is pretty comfortable, judging by the amount of it on view. He’s got the swagger of his lusty part down pat, but a tragic back story provides that part with some welcome shading, and Jackman is comfortable with that as well. As the senior villain, Brown is full of almost cartoonish bluster, and his screen time is thankfully limited. It’s Wenham that fascinates as the brooding, soft-spoken Fletcher, nemesis of Lady Ashley, a venomous presence who slithers through scenes, never talking directly to, or looking at, those he’s attempting, very effectively, to intimidate.
But the real star of the film is the sumptuous visual style: the bold colors, elegant compositions, and breathtaking natural scenery enhanced by computer graphics that Luhrman and cinematographer Mandy Walker combine to impart a dream-like quality to the imagery, a stylized look that well serves a movie blending romance, history, and native magic.  There’s more than a touch of fantasy in all this, and it’s therefore wholly fitting that the Hollywood film most referenced in Australia is The Wizard of Oz, with its parallel tale of a woman journeying to a faraway land and encountering an odd assortment of heroes, villains, and a wizard of sorts.
In Australia, Luhrman has certainly tried to do for the historical film what he did for the musical, recreating it in his fervid imagination.  His film is an old-fashioned story told in a new-fashioned way, but despite its genuine flights of inspiration, it’s ultimately too weighed down  by its ambitions to fully realize them all.  Bold and entertaining, Australia is definitely worth a visit, but to say it will be a rather odd trip at times is something of a down-understatement.

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