Australia (2008)

Director: Baz Luhrmann

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By Roderick Heath

Having been left bankrupt by the good graces of government bureaucrats, and with the last few cents in my pocket, I braved the mountain storms to go see Australia. A fine state to watch such a film in!

Baz Luhrmann’s film career has supposedly been an advertisement for manic energy and a pure passion for film that transcends the manginess of his concepts. The best sequence in his career was a single-shot study of Paul Mercurio dancing in Luhrmann’s first film, Strictly Ballroom (1992). It was a moment that rejoiced in physical grace and paid attention to how to shoot a dance scene. Since then he has betrayed no such simple understanding or poise. He moved on to make William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), two tedious assaults on the senses. Now, with $150 million of Rupert Murdoch’s money in hand, he set out to revitalise the Australian film industry. Well, that’s what the buzz before the film’s release was proposing. From the mid ’90s on, when large numbers of Aussie technicians, actors, and directors began finding substantial success and respect overseas, there has been an expectation that someday some of it was going to have to be brought home. And not just in the fashion of Cate Blanchett starring in depressing little indie films like Little Fish or Heath Ledger in Candy: no, but to try to make a big, take-on-the-world blockbuster.

Luhrmann was the man to finally attempt it.

I went to Australia, despite my dislike of Luhrmann’s oeuvre, because I felt his new movie shouldn’t have to apologise for what it is—an oversized, rollicking, self-consciously absurd spin on outback mythology. There was opportunity there to look at how far the cinema culture has come from the moronic Man from Snowy River (1982) and the other exercises in two-dimensional historicism. And yet I felt finally sickened by Australia, a film which tries far, far too hard, and proves that rather than having an ironic glint in its eye and a magician’s touch to its spectacle, it’s pure, unadorned, interminable, elephantine kitsch. Good moments peer occasionally through a morass of the insensible.

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The plot, such as it is: Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat, arrives in the Northern Territory in 1939 to chase down her husband, Lord Ashley, who’s become overly involved in a financially troubled cattle station named Faraway Downs. She’s taken under the wing of a rough, tough, sweaty, stubbly drover named…The Drover (Hugh Jackman), and soon finds her husband is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible. Conventional wisdom says it was Aboriginal elder and mystic King George (David Gulpilil). Actually it was her husband’s rotter of an overseer, Fletcher (David Wenham), who’s working to sell out the station to a cattle king named King Carney (Bryan Brown). Obviously a great amount of care went into thinking up the character names. The only way to save the station is to drive its herd across country to try to break Carney’s attempt to monopolise an army supply contract. And then there’s Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-caste boy resulting from Fletcher’s liaison with an Aboriginal woman, who is under constant threat of being removed and put into mission care, and who becomes mascot, and finally, spiritual saviour of the enterprise.

The first 20 minutes promise a different kind of movie to the one that Australia actually is, as Luhrmann’s wild editing matches posturing performances—Kidman, in particular, seems to be a kind of wind-up comedy doll of female snottiness—to achieve the same hyped-up, shit-hits-the-fan excess and tonal uncertainty as Moulin Rouge! From Kidman being mortified over her smalls being scattered to the four winds to being shocked at one of Jackman’s Aboriginal offsiders shooting a kangaroo, the comedy is thumpingly overstated. Luhrmann always sets his films in motion with leering caricatures and choppy, insubstantial storytelling techniques. Australia might count as a better film than the atrocious Moulin Rouge! if only because it’s actually a film. That previous movie seemed to have been conceived as a plush spectacle until someone panicked over its lack of cool and edited it by feeding it into a leaf mulcher. Australia is, at least, not the product of panic.

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Soon Australia settles into aping other narratives. It’s almost exactly the same story as the second half of Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice (in fact, his estate might consider suing), though its official inspirations are Red River, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, dashes of From Here to Eternity and The African Queen and, oh, the list goes on, and who cares! Despite having one of Oz’s top novelists (Richard Flanagan) and another good writer (Ronald Harwood) involved in the screenplay, Australia has all the dramatic integrity of a game of Monopoly. The middle hour is watchable, detailing the great cattle drive that Fletcher and his crew of nasties try to sabotage, though why an excess of CGI turns the outback into something not far from Peter Jackson’s Skull Island is beyond me. Luhrmann stages some fine sequences when he wants to, like when Nullah and his mother are threatened with drowning in a water tank, and a cattle stampede. The photography by Mandy Walker is often breathtaking in its vivid, overlarge, painterly detail. All for nought, in the end, because Luhrmann doesn’t know when to quit. There is a line between knowing enthusiasm and rampant cornball.

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Much is made in articles and interviews about how Luhrmann’s father ran a movie theatre and that he’s slavishly devoted to the ideals of the communal cinema experience. And yet, I wonder if he’s ever actually watched a real epic film. It’s clear that he has no connection whatsoever to the substance of them. Luhrmann’s understanding of what they’re about seems to have been communicated through coffee table books and camp stage revues. Rhett and Scarlett were characters with emotional and sexual lives that demanded understanding and involvement: Drover and Lady Ashley are stick figures. Luhrmann certainly can’t muster a moment in this film to match the truly evocative hate-love that drove a drunken Rhett to carry Scarlett upstairs and molest her. Luhrmann has no feeling for tone of performance or integrity of story, and his love of melodrama feels tinged with contempt. Australia isn’t actually anymore honest or big-hearted than Michael Bay’s similarly kitschy Pearl Harbor (2001). Luhrmann’s at his best in the few scenes where his empty-vessel figurations that pass for characters shut up and he cuts loose with terrific visual impressions: the smoke-and-flame-ridden Darwin Bay after the climactic Japanese attack are majestic. It’s just what’s actually going on that’s the problem.

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The plot of Australia runs out when the cattle drive concludes. Everything that comes after—and it goes on for more than another hour yet—is tacked on as if Luhrmann had a checklist of things he wanted to happen. Fletcher bumps off King Carney when he proves not to be a big enough bad guy in a scene that’s a total hash. Drover and Lady fall in love and shack up, but split over Nullah’s need to go walkabout with King George. But Nullah gets nabbed—part of Fletcher’s evil design—and sent off to the Melville Island mission. Scene after scene passes without any actual propulsion, and it’s a relief when the Japanese decide to attack. But that longed-for climax is a disappointment and, despite the CGI, it leans hilariously on stock footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), as if Twentieth Century Fox are still determined to squeeze some profit potential from that flop. Wenham, a good actor, tries to make his villain distinct from Luhrmann’s usual run of moustache-twirling villainy by equipping him with a long, dry Aussie drawl. He’s got exactly the same background as Drover, but no characterisation is offered to explain why they’re so different.

The finale reaches multiple apogees of pointless idiocy: staging a never-happened Japanese invasion of Melville Island for the sake of a shootout where Drover’s brother-in-law can pointlessly throw his life away; Nullah playing a pitch-perfect rendition of “Over the Rainbow” on a harmonica to alert Lady Ashley to their arrival back in Darwin; and Fletcher, in a rage, trying to shoot Nullah, only to be speared by King George with a hastily assembled spear made from copper piping. No, I’m not making this up, but I wish I were. I was irresistibly reminded of The Simpsons’ imagined alternate ending for Casablanca where Sam knocks Louis down with his piano and Ilsa parachutes to land on Hitler’s head. But Australia is not meant to be a joke. No, the swirling strings and apocalyptic smoke reveal a filmmaker straining for grandeur and achieving only wretched self-satire.

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It’s not really the cast’s fault. Jackman is actually at his best playing archly masculine heroes—from his eye-catching debut as a prisoner in the TV show Corelli (1995), to becoming one of the bright sparks of the X-Men films and the only watchable element of Stephen Summers’ Van Helsing (2004). He hits the screen swinging in Australia, momentarily promising an antipodean Indiana Jones. But the script gives him very little to do. He successfully resists Luhrmann’s efforts to turn him into another lurching mannequin with an easy charm and plainness of purpose. The real climax comes when he appears at a society ball, clean-shaven and dressed in a tuxedo. Luhrmann goes in for a grand close-up, and the women in the audience about me gave a communal moan of orgasm. Kidman, one of my least favourite actresses in the known universe, is surprising in that she radiates pheromones for Jackman, but her ever-studied acting style is always apparent. For his part, Walters has a kind of ease and energy on screen that’s rare in child actors.

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In the end, the most actively offensive element of Australia is its affectation of historical seriousness—including solemn opening and closing titles—in dealing with the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children of mixed blood who were removed from their parents and placed into state care. After the leering caricatures of the early scenes, Luhrmann’s pretences to racial sensitivity and harmonising are already suspect. King George is a witch doctor, and Nullah has inherited his powers and stops first a cattle stampede and then a bullet by using The Force, or something. What exactly does this Super-Duper Magical Negro shit have to do with the Stolen Generations? Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) wasn’t really a good film—it was shallow and reduced its protagonists to simplistic moppets to ensure our concern—but at least it wasn’t this. Far from representing how far we’ve come, this film indicates that we haven’t come any distance at all.

I know people who are descended from great Top End cattle barons and Aboriginal elders. Any of their stories deserve to be told, for real. This film is called Australia, and it involves an important episode in our history, but in the end, it’s all nothing but a prop for Luhrmann’s ego. Australia could be the worst film of the year, but I might not speak for the majority. After all, I felt the same about Moulin Rouge!, and it gained eight Oscar nominations and made millions at the box office. l

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    30th/11/2008 to 10:04 pm

    Man, I enjoyed the shit out of that review, nicely done. You just saved me the trouble of having to go see the movie, which from its trailers looked only nearly as ludicrous as you make it sound here. This seems like one of those movies where the reviews are going to be a lot more fun than actually sitting through the film.

  • Rod spoke:
    1st/12/2008 to 6:40 pm

    Glad it was fun to read, Ed, because it wasn’t fun to write. The crowd I saw it with lapped it up, however. Luhrmann’s infantile mind seems fairly well attuned to his audience.

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