Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Bryan Brown, Brandon Walters, David Wenham
Running Time: 165 minutes
***1/2 (out of ****)
Poor Baz Luhrmann. He had to know even before Australia was released into theaters critics and the mainstream media would have their knives sharpened, ready to attack. But someone has to make a movie like this and I don’t see any other filmmaker with enough guts to try. In 2001 Luhrman reintroduced us to the movie musical with Moulin Rouge! and Hollywood is still riding the wave of its success.Now, seven years later, he’s resurrecting another endangered genre, the old-fashioned studio epic, aiming to recapture the magic of such golden age classics as Gone With The Wind, Giant and The African Queen with their sweeping vistas and gargantuan stories. There’s even a mustache-twirling villain. You have to give him credit. The Oscar season wouldn’t feel complete without a big movie and this is BIG in every sense of the word. From its scope, to its story, to its ambition, and yes, even to its seemingly never-ending running time.
Of course the big question coming out of this is just how "EPIC" it is. The answer to that is a little tricky and it’s there where the one glaring flaw with the film comes into view. In terms of length and scope its definitely epic but there were many points where I felt it was trying very hard to evoke memories of those aforementioned classic films without ever actually becoming the real thing. Baz’s intentions are blatantly obvious, but that’s probably what he wanted and why he’s respected and even adored as a filmmaker by many. He wears his heart on his sleeve and for this to become the real thing he’d have to hold back and we all know this isn’t a director capable of subtlety. To his credit, he knows exactly the kind of movie he’s trying to make, offers no apologies for it and takes it as far over the top as it can possibly go. In the final act he manages to take it even further than that with a series of false endings that may test even the most patient of filmgoers.
As the movie entered its home stretch (one of many) I found almost laughing at the audacity of the picture, but I do mean that in a good way. Not just because the events that occur at the end were hysterically entertaining, but because I simply couldn’t believe he went all out like this. Is it too long? Well, I didn’t remember what year I entered the theater and was pretty sure I didn’t have a full beard when it started. But I was never bored. The whole thing is a sprawling, self-indulgent mess that should win an Oscar for LEAST Editing, yet I kind of loved it and the approach was definitely appropriate for the daunting material.
The year is 1939 and stuck-up English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has arrived in Australia to take ownership of her late husband’s cattle station, Faraway Downs, where a half-caste Aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) is hiding out from authorities. He learns the way of the land from his grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil), who looks over him and the events in the film from the sidelines, acting as a sort of a Greek chorus for the viewer. Lady Sarah’s first order of business is dismissing the ranch’s abusive manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), unaware she must also soon contend with beef baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) who wants to corner all of the cattle market and add the land to his growing collection.
With the help of a rugged, quick-tempered man known only as the “Drover” (Hugh Jackman), she embarks on a journey to drive the cattle across the land to the town of Darwin where soldiers are stationed. Joining them is Nullah and the ranch’s drunk Teddy Roosevelt look alike, Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson). This adventure comprises the old-school Western portion of the film, arguably the most exciting and visually impressive (especially a scene where they steer the cattle from the edge of a cliff). Despite complaints to the contrary I thought the CGI looked just fine.
From there it moves into romance territory as the class clash between prissy Lady Sarah and the Drover evolves into what we expect it to and the film makes social statements about The Stolen Generation, a shameful period in the country’s history where mixed-race aboriginal children were removed from their families and forcibly placed into white society. If I had to pick a section of the film that could have used some tightening or a trim this probably would have been it. The film then turns into a war epic with the bombing of Dover by Japanese forces and this section is so brief that if you blink you’ll miss it. Don’t blink though because it’s an incredible sequence that's already drawn mostly unfair comparisons to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. There’s a visual similarity but unlike that atrocity this is actually well directed and performed.
The heart and soul of Australia lies in newcomer Brandon Walters' performance as the young Aboriginal boy Nullah. Besides his energetic and engaging narration of the story, Walters just commands attention every time he’s onscreen and basically steals the movie from his more seasoned co-stars. It’s nearly impossible to believe this kid has never acted a day in his life and was just plucked from obscurity. If the film manages to get any nominations outside the obvious and deserving ones for Mandy Walker’s awe inspiring cinematography and Catherine Martin's impressive costume design it will belong to him.
As for Kidman, she might be the only actress working today that when I see her name on a film I’m instantly willing to pay up. I have to wonder how many more great performances she can give before everyone stops giving her a hard time and finally admits she’s one of the best we have. No one takes risks like she does. Ironically though the only Oscar she owns is for her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, easily one of her least interesting performances. She should have already earned hardware for her daring turns in Dogville and Birth, the latter of which was one of the best performances I’ve seen in a bad movie. Her turn as Lady Sarah does not rank among those mainly because the character isn’t as fully formed and more meant to stand in as a Scarlett O’ Hara type. But boy does she play it well. Naysayers who claim she’s incapable of facial expressions may want to pay attention to the first half hour of this film where she delivers a bunch of hysterical ones.
By casting Kidman as an uptight ice queen Baz cleverly plays on her celebrity reputation and as Lady Sarah’s guard starts to drop her performance loosens, kicking into high gear. Of course, as expected, everyone is blaming the film’s box office performance and critical reception on her as if no one else was involved at all in the making of it. What nonsense. The media was foaming at the mouth, waiting to bash this if only for the reason she was headlining it. You’d think by now the public would have finally gotten over the fact she was married to Tom Cruise, especially since he has a new wife for us to pick on. I think down the line people will eventually see how silly the Kidman hate is and she’ll eventually be remembered as one of the greats. As good as she is, however, it's actually Jackman who carries most of the film, bringing a lot of substance to what could have been a shallow, one-dimensional role. Well, it kind of still is a shallow, one-dimensional role but he manages to hide that really well. The performance is almost invisible in its effectiveness.
The supporting actors also turn in fine work and their characters were treated with more respect than I expected. Bryan Brown is pitch-perfect in an underwritten role as King Carney while David Wenham chews the scenery appropriately as the main stock villain, Fletcher. When his character starts to really fly off the rails in the final act he’s up for it and the results are a lot of fun. I appreciated the attention given to the Drover’s helper Magarri (well played by David Ngoombujarra) and the comedy involving the Thompson’s Kipling. Even Fletcher’s wife (Essie Davis) is brush stroked with a human dimension I found surprising. I could see the argument these characters are broad stereotypes but would that make them all that different from those in the films this is paying homage to? Some will have problems with the ending but when I like and care about the characters the last thing I want is for them to needlessly suffer for the sake of dark realism, especially in a fun Hollywood throwback like this.
It’s easy to understand why critics and audiences haven’t responded that favorably to the film, outside of a preconceived bias against the director and star. When this much time and effort is put into something there’s the tendency to expect a masterpiece and anything less is deemed unacceptable. Baz leaves it all up on the screen and drenches this irony-free outing in pure, unapologetic emotion, something we’re definitely not used to seeing these days.
Under normal circumstances a film as big as this would seem to be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination, which was probably a primary motivation behind behind making it. It won’t get one though. There are just too many issues with it and politics aren’t on its side, but I’ll admit it would be funny if the Academy just decided to go ahead and nominate it anyway in spite of the poor reviews because it has that "Oscar feel” to it. They did it last year with Atonement and ended up being right.
When the film ended I was more exhausted than elated and still not sure whether it was long because it needed to be or long just for the sake of being long. The Dark Knight was only 15 minutes shorter than this but it sure didn’t feel like it. Outside of that it’s difficult to name many specific things it did wrong. Baz is smart like that. He covered himself. He knows that overindulgence is never a criminal offense and, as a result, he gets away with an awful lot. I left with a feeling that I had seen something of importance and substance, not a frequent event in what’s been a considerably weak movie going year. The more I think back the more I realize how much I liked it, a small miracle considering my general distaste for period films.
An argument will be made that a movie as big as this can only be only be experienced on the big screen and to an extent that’s true but I’d like to offer up a case for DVD viewing. It can be grueling in a theater for that long and I think I would have enjoyed this more if I saw it in the comfort of my own home, but that’s just me. There’s no denying the theater atmosphere does add to the experience though and cinephiles will likely prefer it in that context. It’s definitely a movie for movie lovers. We need big films like this because without them the smaller ones would mean less. And I’m glad someone is out there still trying to make them. There may have been better films than Australia this year, but few had as much guts.