australiaposterstarring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman
written by Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan, and Baz Luhrmann & directed by Baz Luhrmann
Rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language.

On the eve of World War II, Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), a squeamish British society woman, travels to Darwin, Australia to command her absent husband to sell Faraway Downs, the struggling cattle operation he has been running there. She arrives just in time to find him murdered and the ranch threatened by the encroaching near-monopoly of King Carney (Bryan Brown). The machinations of Carney’s evil henchman, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), provoke Sarah into stubbornly determining to drive the cattle to Darwin and break Carney’s stranglehold on the army beef contract. To succeed, she must enlist the services of the aptly-named Drover (Jackman), a cattle drover who is Faraway Downs’ only hope of survival and a probable source of impending romance, and combat overwhelming prejudice against women and aborigines, as well as wartime hardships and looming air attacks by the Japanese.

Australia is a museum piece of a movie, showcasing a sort of filmmaking that had largely died out decades ago. Undeniably, this sort of filmmaking produced some of the great classics of American cinema, movies that we still watch and enjoy today. However, just as undeniably (at least in the case of Australia) employing that style today is jarringly outmoded. The real problem here is that Luhrmann has made a sprawling Hollywood epic not unlike, say, Gone With the Wind without seeming to know what makes that movie work. It isn’t the exotic beauty of the setting (largely played out in front of cardboard backdrops on a studio backlot), or even the pathos of the story (which is more frequently melodramatic than not), but the depth and personality of the characters.

The movie is sometimes uneven in the worst way, with some of the most jarring and confused cross-cutting I have ever witnessed. The entire introductory fifteen minutes or so are an increasingly cluttered jumble of frenetic activities, not unlike what Luhrmann did in Moulin Rouge. However, where that film’s bizarre and rapid-fire flirtation with sentiment and silliness somehow worked despite itself, the result here is just the opposite. Australia stumbles along a knife’s edge, operating just below the level of “passable” as often as not, and leaning on the use of dramatic slow-motion to exorbitant excess.

The most distracting problem is undoubtedly the use of obviously phony backdrops, which are so ubiquitous that one almost wonders if the film’s stars did any work on location. Rare indeed is the close-up that does not take place in front of a screen, and only the establishing long shots seem to integrate genuine Australian scenery. It’s not that so much of the setting of Australia is a construct, it’s that it is so obviously a construct, just like the painted backdrops of Tara which Vivian Leigh emoted in front of back in 1939.

The story is built around two standard-issue movie tropes: an easy condemnation of racial prejudice and a paint-by-numbers love story complicated by historical conflict. Race, in particular, is handled rather oddly by the film. The aboriginal characters possess the most depth of anyone, and the abuse they experience at the hands of the Australian whites is systematically exposed and condemned. How unfortunate, then, to find a stereotype as glaring as “Sing Song,” the cardboard cut-out China-man who (of course) drives the outfit’s chuck-wagon.  Seriously, what is with that name?

Furthermore, the way Australia fawns on goofy tribal mysticism is positively embarrassing. The bushman witch doctor King George is a ubiquitous presence in the movie, stalking the characters so closely that barely five minutes can go by without a shot of him standing solemnly on one leg and watching over the action from atop some handy bit of high ground or chanting as he dances around an enormous bonfire. His contributions, though, are almost entirely limited to magically appearing and disappearing at will and casting significant looks about when something important is happening miles away.

What, then, of the love story? It is conventional, yes, and predictable, but that need not matter overmuch if the stars at least have chemistry together. And, to some extent, they do. Unfortunately, they don’t have a great deal of material to work with. Jackman’s character is so thinly drawn that he is named after his occupation, and he plays out the tired arc of the independent, loner cowboy who is reluctant to be tied to be tied down. Kidman’s character is a bit better off, but the transformation she undergoes, from high-strung, prissy aristocrat to rough-riding, hard-drinking range-rider is more than a little clunky.

Still, these two look positively complex next to the other white characters. There’s the slovenly, alcoholic accountant with the heart of gold, the corrupt, complacent lawman, the snooty, racist local society woman (lots of these), and the noble, upright military officer. Worst of all, though, is David Wenham’s villainous Fletcher, a thoroughly odious monster who can always be counted on to hit upon the most deplorable course of action imaginable. His crimes run the gamut from theft and sabotage to arson and murder. This paper-thin display of over-the-top evil is all the more unfortunate because it is unnecessary. The movie lets slip one or two details about Fletcher’s past which, if properly handled (or handled at all), might have transformed him into a genuine character.

Hard as it may be to believe, Australia is not entirely without charm or appeal. The beating heart that brings this lumbering beast of a film to life is Nullah, played brilliantly by 11-year old Brandon Walters in his debut performance. Nullah is the charismatic (if occasionally superfluous) narrator, bastard son of Neil Fletcher and grandson of King George. Half-aborigine and half-white, Nullah is caught between two worlds and he feels that he cannot truly belong to either. He quickly latches onto Lady Ashley (“Mrs. Boss”) when she arrives, unaware of the boy’s status as a persecuted outcast in Australian society. The mother-son bond that develops between the two is so clearly the emotional center of the movie, it makes the romance almost unnecessary. Walters is so charming, talented, and uplifting in the role that he essentially saved the film for me.

Australia‘s subtle attempts to evoke the sweeping enormity of epics like Gone With the Wind are joined by far less subtle invocations of another beloved film from 1939: The Wizard of Oz. Australians, of course, affectionately associate their homeland with the magical world of created by L. Frank Baum. The connection is reinforced unremittingly throughout the movie, most notably with repeated renditions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (which actually somewhat relieve the audience from the intrusive melodrama of the score). Despite a noble struggle to associate itself with avowed classics, Australia falls a bit flat in nearly every way that matters, landing far short of the sort of timelessness that continues to draw new viewers to the films that it references some seventy years after they were made.

~ by Jared on November 28, 2008.

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