A brassy melodramatic spin on period romances in harsh lands like “Gone with the Wind” and “Out of Africa,” Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” proves to be a flawed, formulaic family crowd pleaser with identity issues rather than a serious dramatic awards contender.
Awkwardly trying to fuse several dissonant storylines and an inconsistent tone into a cohesive whole, the film reaches higher ground when it ditches an initial all-embracing approach in favor of straightforward action/historical drama with light romantic touches. The visuals are often breathtaking, Catherine Martin’s costume and production design are painstakingly detailed yet a tad cheeky, and the actors turn the script’s broad archetypes into characters more compelling than they first appear.
Kicking off with its worst foot forward – the opening thirty minutes revels in the labored, self-indulgent excesses that Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” often drifted into. Yet that film’s stage show context was more forgiving and suited to the cringe-inducing hammy acting, forced dialogue and overly slick editing style which rings very artificial against the natural backdrop of Australia’s Northern Territory.
Then, having settled Nicole Kidman’s 1930’s English aristocrat character into her late husband’s cattle ranch, the film does away with the ocker humor and redundant narration in favor of a more relaxed take that tones down the veneer of self-aware camp. Fusing an old-fashioned western ala “Red River,” the uptight female/macho laid back male dynamic seen in various films from “African Queen” to “Romancing the Stone”, and a simplified but effective personal take on the shameful story of the Aboriginal ‘stolen generations’ – the film finds a comfortable albeit familiar groove for an hour or so and ticks every Aussie cliche box along the way.
Hugh Jackman’s ‘The Drover’ is the rugged reluctant hero and the sole local white man in a community where the women are snobbish hate-fueled racists and the men are rich schemers or ugly goons who spend their time raping Aboriginal women (only implied of course). Armed with a thicker than usual accent and Jackman’s natural charisma, Baz isn’t afraid to play up the actor’s roguish charm or physical beefcake – notably displayed in a delightfully gratuitous bathing scene that plays out like an ad for a gay men’s body wash.
Kidman’s Lady Sarah starts out with the actress seriously overplaying the role to the point of parody before slipping into more comfortable and natural work as an assertive woman who finds her true self in this rugged wilderness. The pair’s inevitable coupling is one of the few subplots of the film that’s relatively restrained (by Baz’s standards) – allowing for a thoughtful scene where they talk about their past partners and potentially child-less future. David Wenham’s villain, the sadistic son of a local beef baron (Bryan Brown in an enjoyably Godfather-style role that’s untimely cut off), is a one-dimensional bad guy of the moustache twirling variety. With the interesting hobby of garoting live flies, Wenham’s stuck with the film’s most unforgivably cliched role and yet makes it work for what it is. Veteran Aussie talent like Barry Otto, Sandy Gore, Bill Hunter, Bruce Spence, and Ben Mendehlson make appearances in small supporting roles – the best being Jack Thompson’s drunk accountant who is the focus of one of the film’s emotional high points.
The real star of the show though is young Aboriginal actor Brandon Walters as the mischievous and at times gratingly plucky young Nullah. More often than not told through his perspective, he’s an endearing youngster with talent beyond his age. David Gulpilil as his grandfather, the mystical Aboriginal King George who certainly gets around in this flick, delivers his usually reliable work – this time mainly spent dancing and hovering over events like a self-proclaimed deity who gets involved when he deems necessary.
As the story is kept confined to both the cattle drive and the leads bonding with Nullah, it actually proves entertaining in a conventional sense. A sequence involving an attempt to stop a cliff-top stampede is the film’s highlight in spite of some dodgy CGI (which the film is littered with), and Baz effectively milks tension out of a scene where the authorities come to remove Nullah and in the process take an emotional toll on the youngster. The action moves to Darwin where love is consummated in the rain, the villain is left humiliated and everything seems to be tidily wrapped up with a newspaper headline montage and the twentieth rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.
There’s just one problem – there’s a full hour to go. That final hour changes tone again, this time becoming a cliched WW2 drama of people torn apart and then struggling through the wreckage to come back together. The much touted Japanese bombing of Darwin has a few minutes of effective build-up but the actual event ultimately plays out like a TV remake of “Pearl Harbor” – decidedly cheaper and shorter (two minutes at best). There’s an effective sequence involving a rescue of displaced children from an island that Japanese soldiers have landed on, but otherwise everything unfolds in predictable albeit earnest ways that will appeal to only the most easily satisfied.
Mandy Walker’s cinematography – taking in sweeping shots of such famed Outback locations as the Bungle Bungles, the Kimberleys, the Cockburn mountain range and King George Falls – is tourism commercial picturesque. Yet far too often there’s some seemingly unfinished blue screen work with the actors blatantly inserted into locations that were obviously either too remote or too sacred to let a film crew run wild on. Reports of extensive reshoots on the production have proven accurate with some of the new footage notably standing out in key scenes. David Hirschfelder’s music is suitably epic throughout but does drift into bombast at a few inopportune points.
The screenplay, attributed to four separate writers, is much like the needlessly long 165 minute runtime – it screams of excess and lacks a steady hand to pull all its disparate threads and grandiose eccentricities into a concise and straightforward tale that fits together like a well-oiled machine. Designed for broad international appeal, this unabashedly overcooked approach should prove a profitable success for Fox rather than a critical one as global reviews aren’t as likely to be as forgiving as many in the local Aussie industry are to its noble pedigree.
Taken for what it is, campy anachronistic period fluff, it succeeds as light entertainment with an admirable socially conscious message – think “Giant” as interpreted by John Waters. By the unfair measures placed on it however, from the pressure of a local film industry desperately in need of reform to a swelter of Oscar bloggists hungry to push it up or off their predictions list – it’s a notable disappointment. Luhrmann’s desire for more time to fine tune it now seems deserved in retrospect – a more polished and succinct version could have pushed this beyond the ambitious but flawed cartoonish epic we’re left with.