20th Century Fox
Release Date: November 26, 2008
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, David Wenhem, Bryan Brown
By Sean Chavel
With its overblown scope and flash-frenzied visual style, the title of "Australia" should have ended with an exclamation point so it reads "Australia!" Better yet, "Baz Luhrmann’s Australia!" The director of the film, a flamboyant impresario, is a teeming virtuoso in splashy visual techniques and lightening fast editing. Luhrmann uses such filmmaking technique to get to the myth behind the myth. Luhrmann sees the epic as his own molded vision of crackpot entertainment.
Luhrmann, of course, is the director of the wild and gaudy “Moulin Rouge!” which did come officially with an exclamation point at the end of the title. “Australia” is an unmistaken work by him, but this time he’s thinking epic panorama. Set in 1939 in Northern Australia, the movie stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman battle evil cattle barons, Parliament policy acts to remove Aboriginal children from their families, and the air-raiding Japanese in World War II attack mode. Forget plot struggles though. For the first time in years, native Aussies Kidman and Jackson get to use their natural accents for the film. It’s the ideal star vehicle.
This story jams everything it can into its 2 hour and 45 minute capacity, but the central pull of the story is Lady Sarah Ashley’s (Kidman) attachment to a young Aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) whose mother dies tragically early on in the film while attempting to evade cold-hearted authorities. Sarah Ashley is a Londoner who has inherited a prairie, one of those grand movie-prairies with a lingering name: Faraway Downs. The Drover (Jackman) is a hunky good-guy cattle driver known for showing off his rippling pecs.
That’s my slight exaggeration, but when Jackman first goes shirtless you realize why the Aussie was recently chosen as People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. Behind the camera, Luhrmann is equally interested in finding the splendor in other natural elements. Whether it be kangaroos galloping across the plains, the vintage beautified luggage, the massive wave of cattle herd, skies that are stunningly blue, sunsets that are gorgeously and artificially purple – even meticulously crafted dirt on windshields. Luhrmann’s view of nature’s roughness, in general, is rendered manicured in a romanticized way.
Scheming to ruin Sarah Ashley is cattle driver Fletcher (David Wenhem) and cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown). One of the film’s signature set-pieces is a cattle trampling triggered by the malevolent Fletcher, with Nullah stepping to the edge of a cliff hoping the cattle, in the hundreds, don’t run him off to a falling death. Fletcher is the henchman, while King Carney mostly just snarls from his rich estate whenever bad news is relayed to him. No, Paul Hogan doesn’t make an appearance in this movie; Jackman is enough of an idealized hero to save all. Outback tribal magic man (David Gulpilil), in the softer perimeters of the film, brings good luck from beyond the range.
With magic man’s good vibes, Jackman and Kidman are able to triumph through the hardships. Just when all looks well, Nullah is captured by authorities and sent en route to a church mission reformatory. Jackman and Kidman put their whopping kissing scenes to rest – Luhrmann finds thrill in close-up smooching – and hurry to save their surrogate child. The character of Nullah though isn’t an authentic Aboriginal boy – he’s a wild child striving towards being a Westernized rascal. The film is sometimes narrated by Nullah, but his voice regardless, the film itself has a childish naiveté point-of-view. The Outback isn’t a harsh terrain in this movie, every few miles seems to have an outpost. And we’re never oriented with indigenous Aboriginal tribes that exist beyond civilized land. To see a more genuine Australian vision, you’d have to rent “Walkabout” or “Where the Green Ants Dream.” Nicolas Roeg and Werner Herzog, the directors of those films, would find this film particularly silly.
Hype is huge for Luhrmann’s latest, but once the film cuts loose in theaters the film will likely lose its Oscar bid. Technical aspects such as cinematography and costume design will be certainly met with accolades. Everything about the look of the movie is big and glossy. But the characters are as broad as the landscapes are vast. “The Wizard of Oz” is an overused motif with mistaken relevance. If emotional chords are fleetingly tapped, the film is counter-measured by its inauthentic historical drama. It’s all Luhrmann’s mythmaking with his personal stamped grandiosity. The film is voluptuous but superficial.