A film review by Craig J. Koban

AUSTRALIA jjj

2008, PG-13, 165 mins.

Lady Sarah: Nicole Kidman / Drover: Hugh Jackman / Nullah: Brandon Walters / Neil Fletcher: David Wenham / King Carney: Bryan Brown

Directed by Baz Luhrmann / Written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan

More PhotosAs far as the sheer obviousness of its title goes, Baz Luhrmannís AUSTRALIA is a $130 million budgeted love letter to his native outback countryÖand to the simple, old fashioned classic Hollywood films of yesteryear in general.  This is a big, bold, lavish, colourful, and voraciously ambitious ode to Australian history and its forcefully beautiful and imposing landscape.  

Beyond its frequently gorgeous artifice (Luhrmann is utterly incapable of making a film that isnít a spectacular feast for the eyes), AUSTRALIA is also a love story of opposites that become forever attracted to one another, a western-esque tale of cattle wrangling and herding, a bombastic war film involving the 1942 Japanese bombing of Darwin, and last, but not least, a rallying cry to the Aborigines of the nation that have were victimized by its intolerably racist assimilation polices (which were shockingly still in effect as of 1973).  In short, AUSTRALIA is epic, but it falls short of ever being a New Age GONE WITH THE WIND or THE AFRICAN QUEEN (which it appears to be emulating).  Instead, itís more like PEARL HARBOR, but with a more powerful artistic vision and a hell of a lot less gag inducing schmaltz and cheese. 

Luhrmann is certainly a filmmaking artist with an impeccable eye and a ferociously jubilant spirit.  Heís only made three films previous to this one, the last one being MOULIN ROUGE, coming out way, way back in 2001.  That work effectively concluded his self-anointed Red Curtain Trilogy (comprised of 1992ís STRICTLY BALLROOM and 1996ís ROMEO + JULIET).   ROUGE was the best and most memorably energetic musicals that Iíve seen in the current decade, and that filmís intensely spirited and Technicolor-inspired explosion of Bohemian culture, modern day pop tunes, and marvelous art direction was stupendous.  Not too many films will ever rival ROUGE's infectious tone and nearly schizophrenic stylistic impulses: the film was simply alive.  AUSTRALIA is in no way as inventive or as daringly original as a vision as ROUGE was, but this is also a work that is a wonder for the eyes: It gives us a sweeping and alluring panoramic canvas that shows the ruggedness and splendor of the outback.  There is no denying that Luhrmannís heart Ė not to mention his indefinable passion Ė is in every pore of this film.   

ButÖcrikeyÖthe film is a narrative and thematic mess.  A grand and extraordinarily beautiful looking mess, but a mess nonetheless.  There is simply too much thrown into AUSTRALIA: too many half conceived ideas, too many predictable and routine story threads, too many historical and cinematic references, and too much inconsistent shifting between all of these tangents.  Leaving the theatre I was left puzzled by the divergent scope of the piece and, more or less, asked myself what this film was really trying to be about.  Is it attempting to be a Scarlet OíHara and Rhett Butler romance set against the backdrop of real-life historical conflict?  Is a western-themed picture about a womanís attempt to stand up on her own convictions in an effort to defend her ranch against the interests of a domineering, moustache stroking villain?  Is it an emotionally powerful war film about the Japanese invasion on Aussie soil?  

My guess would be that its real heart is firstly with the smoldering romance between the two stars (Luhrmann is an unapologetic romantic) and secondly with the terrible issues of racial intolerance and bigotry that the countryís white society had against its aborigines.  It is here where the central dilemma with AUSTRALIA exists: Luhrmann wants to film to be thoughtful and meaningful with its condemnation of his countryís past re-education polices, but they are marginalized somewhat by the filmís predilection of being a fairly conservative, Golden Aged, Hollywood romantic melodrama.  Because of this, the film is never able to emerge as thoroughly intriguing or compellingÖat least not as much as it thinks it is. 

Alas, the film succeeds as eye candy, and aside from the gorgeous production values, we also have gorgeous lead actors.  We are introduced to Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, as radiant as ever, but lacking a bit of conviction in the part), an uptight and snobby aristocrat that has arrived Down Under from her native England to catch her husband in the act of adultery, but instead finds him brutal murdered.  As a result, she ends up managing a cattle ranch that has fallen on bad times since her husbandís untimely death.  Her attempts at managing the ranchís affairs are not easy, mostly because she is definitely wet behind the ears, but more because she faces some serious opposition in the form of King Carney (Bryan Brown, in very good form here) a local business man that is trying to rule the meat market, and Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), whom she fired after he showed his true colors as a degenerate racist.   

Sarahís life is made more challenging and complicated by the immergence of a local aborigine boy named Nullah (the wide eyed and terrifically amiable Brandon Walters), who has become an orphan after his mother drowned.  Sarah takes it upon herself to adopt the young boy in order for him not to be scooped up by the law and assimilated into their morally questionable re-education strategies.   Adding even more complication is her love/hate relationship with a local cowboy that lives on the plains, Drover (in a career-making leading man performance by Hugh Jackman, who will certainly never be more appealing to lady audience members as he is here).  Sarah hopes that she will be able to take her herd of cattle across the country to Darwin where they can be sold to the armyÖand before King Carney can do the same with his.  Realizing that she canít do it alone, she pleads for assistance to Drover, whom is a fairly introverted loner.  Both have nothing in common, and their initial partnership is categorically rocky, but when Sarah sees the unreservedly ripped abs and biceps of Drover as he bathes himself with a bucket, she easily begins to fall for the rugged lug.  It does not take a fortuneteller to see that this unlikely pair will overcome their differences and get seriously...acquainted...later on. 

These story elements occupy the first two thirds or so of AUSTRALIA.  The first sections essentially involve a considerable amount of playful and flirtatious exchanges between Drover and Sarah, not to mention much in the way of local ranch cattle politics regarding whether the inexperienced Sarah will be able to beat King Carney at his own game (clearly, this latter element is AUSTRALIAís least interesting component).  The last section of the film is its finest, which leads to a shocking attack of the Japanese on Darwin shortly after the sneak attack on the Americans at Pearl Harbor.  Told within this story thread is a would-be tear-jerking episode where Nullah is stripped away from Drover and Sarah and taken to a religious commune for re-education.  When the Japanese start laying havoc on Darwin, the lives of all the characters are thrown into complete disarray. 

There is much to simply savor in AUSTRALIA, much of which is the filmís frequently breathtaking cinematography and art direction.  The film has images of grandiose power (Luhrmann will never be criticized for not having a painterly eye for detail) and some individual sequences have an awesome scope.  One scene in particular that involves Sarah, Drover and company desperately trying to save a herd of thousands from driving themselves off a steep cliff is mesmerizing.  Yes, there is considerable CGI augmentation here, but I think that harsh critics of the effects here miss the point:  Luhrmann is a showman and tries to give all his films a sort of ethereal hyper-realism to the proceedings.  Besides, I am not altogether sure how any other conventional effects techniques could have pulled this scene off.  It does not matter, because the sequence is sensational, as is the late breaking attack of the Japanese on Darwin.   

Some of the performances are also very good, especially by Brandon Walters, who gives such a pleasurable spunk, limitless determination, and natural charisma to Nullah (he also partially narrates the film in voice over).  David Wenham is also letter-perfect playing a lecherous fiend.  Then there is the two romantic leads, and Hugh Jackman does such a thanklessly bravura job playing a role of the beguiled, world-weary, and rough ní tough anti-hero with a heart of gold.  Jackman embodies the soul of his dashing and charming leading man (AUSTRALIA shows him as a natural movie star, but with talent, as was on display in his unreservedly great performance he gave in Christopher Nolanís THE PRESTIGE).  Nicole Kidman, on the other hand, oversells and outstretches herself a bit too far in the film, mostly during the opening passages, where she plays individual moments up to near farcical levels.  Yet, as the film progresses as does her characterís reawakening.  Itís funny, but both Kidmanís performance and character develop a maturity and strong, moving conviction as the film cascades to a conclusion. 

AUSTRALIA, on the negative side, is fairly over stuffed and padded.  The film also suffers from some odd tonal inconsistencies (the final barbarism of the war sequences and the saddening ordeal of Nullahís capture by the Australian authorities is kind of incongruent with the filmís opening care-free and light-hearted flare).  The film is also nearly three hours long, and although the final act is its best laid out and paced, it takes an awfully long time for the story to take off.  The filmís somewhat lingering resemblance to PEARL HARBOR also devalues itís meaningfulness.  Both films involve fairly predictable and prosaic love stories set amidst real life historical war and attack.  If anything, the characters oftentimes struggle to develop as being three-dimensional and significant, especially when placed in the same space as a real event that has so much more implication.  Thankfully, Australiaís romantic melodrama is feels less force fed that that in Michael Bayís film, which reduced its characters down to almost ridiculing soap opera stooges. 

Whatís also somewhat sticky is Luhrmannís attention to the deeply distressing story of Nullahís attempts at eluding capture by the government.  On a positive, Luhrmann does shed light something to say about how dreadful his countryís national polices of forced integration and education led to a cultural genocide.  AUSTRALIA makes the right steps by painting these practices and principles in the correct intolerant light.  Yet, the somber tone of this theme sort of battles for supremacy with the friskiness of the romance within the film: the two never harmoniously co-exist.  Not only that, but Luhrmann ironically paints the Japanese perhaps a bit too broadly as blood-thirsty savages and brutes in a few of the latter scenes involving the attack on Darwin in the film, which comes across as a little disdainful.   Further grinding any level of discernable realism is the appearance of Nullahís grandfather, King George (David Gulpili), who is one of those obligatory shaman-like mystics that can appear and disappear at will and be at just the right place whenever the script deems it necessary.   

My review thus far may indicate that I won't be recommending AUSTRALIA, and Luhrmannís film is certainly one thatís self-indulgently overlong, is plagued by narrative and tonal incoherence, and is overflowing with too many deviating ideas.  The film is also aggressively sappy and annoyingly saccharine at times (many of the dialogue exchanges are silly, and the filmís recurrent usage of musical allusions to THE WIZARD OF OZ and its most famous song kind of feels strained and artificial).  AUSTRALIA is a film that seems destined for a shameless grab at Oscar gold (reports have indicated that 20th Century Fox rushed the film to a November release date to be competitive for the prime nomination season), but the resulting film isnít Best Picture calibre.  However, there is no denying Luhrmannís vision here, and no matter how mammothly overblown, preposterously bloated, and sugar-coated this wartime romantic drama may be, I found the film to be a mystifyingly entertaining throwback picture.  Luhrmann is too gifted as a cinematic showman to make AUSTRALIA a dull and regrettable experience.   I sense what a labor of love it was for him to make the film and his zeal always shows on screen.  Luhrmannís deep infatuation with the material may have overridden his logical impulses, and the film is, as described, a mess...but not a dull or disdainful one. 

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