Australia – Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Starring Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham and Jack Thompson. Rated M for violence and coarse language. 165 mins.
When you give a film an all-encompassing title like Australia, you’ve got to deliver the goods. Baz Luhrmann set that task for himself when he scribbled it atop the first page of his screenplay (provided he’s one of those ‘title-first’ writers; I’ve always been ‘title-last). This wasn’t just going to be a film about drovers, or the stolen generation, or romance in the outback. This film is about AUSTRALIA, IN BIG, BOLDED, STYLISED LETTERING. So, as a proud Australian, I was apprehensive of a film that would apparently surmise my country’s entire identity in only 165 minutes (a blink when you think about it). What a pleasant surprise to discover that the film has earned its sweeping title.
The story of Australia is, quite literally, the story of Australia. It begins at the outbreak of World War 2, with Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) heading to the Northern Territory to sell her husband’s flailing cattle station Faraway Downs. Lady Ashley doesn’t take too kindly to the outback at first, or to her assigned companion, The Drover (Jackman). However, conventional wisdom lets us know it won’t be long before the rugged outdoorsman beds the uptight Brit. After all, he’s Australian! Lady Ashley eventually comes to love Faraway Downs, as well as its live-in staff. This includes our young narrator Nullah (Walters), who may only be four-feet tall, but is easily the standout of the film. It’s an exceptionally nuanced performance for a 12 year old. In one scene, he faces off against a herd of stampeding cattle on the edge of a cliff. If I described it in greater detail, you would laugh it off. Trust me, he makes it work.
The first hour of the film is spectacular. It deftly balances tragic drama with zany comedy, a trait Luhrmann has at this point refined and made signature. The storyline focuses on a last-ditch cattle drive to save The Downs. The station has been losing the cattle war (there was a cattle war?) to King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his evil underling Fletcher (David Wenham, reprising his ‘sniveling villain’ shitck from The Proposition). Sadly, the second half of the film doesn’t quite live up to what came before. The film clumsily patches the conclusion of the first storyline to the big finale – the bombing of Darwin. Part of me thinks the film would have been better if it had finished at the end of part one. However, there are so many great moments from that final half hour. The Japanese attack and its aftermath is an incredible sequence, and I wouldn’t dare suggest cutting a single scene.
The film does suffer from some clichéd representation of Aussies (‘Crikey’ is often used as a verb, a noun and an adjective). However, the performances do exceed their one-note expectations. None more so than Jackman, who provides the most devastating scene of the whole film, in which he demands his Aboriginal brother be allowed into a pub. Did Wolverine make me shed a tear? No, but he came damn close, and that’s much more than I ever expected from any Hugh Jackman performance. Kidman is also (surprisingly) at the top of her game, balancing her flustered screwball-heroine with real emotion.
Australia looks spectacular. It has some truly amazing shots of the outback, displaying both its tremendous beauty and overwhelmingly cruelty. Some sequences are obviously shot on a soundstage (including a campsite that looks as if it was lifted straight from Three Amigos), but for the most part, the film achieves epic realism. It also deftly handles Aboriginal lore and tradition, with David Gulpilil providing an enigmatic performance as the wise King George.
I did not think I would end up writing a positive review for Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. I was certain the film would be unpleasant, glaringly loud and garishly flamboyant. Baz’s trademark extreme close-up’s are still here, but for the most part he has calmed himself down. He knows this film is a big deal, and he has adjusted his style accordingly. It is still his film, or at least it was. Now it’s our film. If a movie can have the guts to call itself AUSTRALIA and not be accused of tarnishing its namesake’s reputation, it should be considered an achievement. It’s not the greatest film we’ve ever produced, but if it becomes the most notable Aussie film internationally, I wouldn’t mind.