REVIEW: Australia [2008]

“Make the land sing”

It’s been seven years since Baz Luhrmann’s astonishing Moulin Rouge! Years that included the dissolution of his planned Alexander the Great film, after Oliver Stone beat him to the punch, and casting changes that plagued the long preproduction of Australia, his new sprawling epic in the country’s frontier during WWII. Known for his visual imagery and artistic bent, the trailers and poster materials for his fourth film seemed a bit uninspired. Much like Peter Jackson with King Kong, it appeared that Luhrmann decided to build his film around an aesthetic, a style of filmmaking that has been gone for decades. Like Jackson’s over-long tale, Australia hits the feel on the head, bringing the melodrama prevalent in films such as Gone With the Wind, allowing his actors to ham it up for the camera and play for emotion with the accompaniment of a not so subtle musical score. As such, being a callback to a forgotten era of cinema, Luhrmann really has done something impressive; however, as far as an almost three-hour tale goes, in today’s fast-paced world of consumerism, I’m not sure how successful the story really is. Something about that type of film feels dated and heavy-handed to the point where I think I’d give it higher marks knowing it was made seventy years ago rather than today. As it is, while entertaining, it becomes a tad self-indulgent, going on and on with its predictability, ever so slightly ruining what is good as it continues.

The story, on its surface, pertains to a plot of land called Faraway Downs, the last piece of countryside not owned by the monopolistic King Carney. In a bid to buy it out, the owner finds himself killed, his wife goes on a journey from England to fetch him, unmarked cows are siphoned to Carney, and an overall plot to destroy any profit the land is making so as to make selling the only option occur. That is until a little boy, the offspring of an aboriginal woman and her white rapist, begins to tell the owner’s wife what really has been happening. Lady Sarah Ashley, who first came to bring her husband home and rid them of Australia once and for all, has her eyes opened to the plight of the natives and the malevolent deeds of the men only looking to make money off the war. So, with the help of a Drover, promised work by her late husband to bring 1,500 cows to port, Ashley and her ragtag bunch of cowboys begin a journey to usurp the power of Carney, sell the cows at a reasonable rate to the British army for food, and bring prosperity back to Faraway Downs. It’s not as easy as all that, though, as you might expect given it’s two and three-quarters hour runtime. The profiteers sitting pretty at their galas while the bastard offspring of their lecherous ways are sent to mission camps and the inevitable joining of the Japanese to the war would make any happy ending seem far, far away.

There is so much more going on throughout the mission to sell cows and keep competition alive in the Australian meat business. Even the love story pales in comparison to the issues of racism and tolerance in that land. The aboriginals are little more than animals, said to not share the feelings of humans. Their “creamy” children, those conceived with the white men, are even less, without a home or a culture, neither black nor white … nothing. Because of this, they are shipped off to an island run by missionaries, bred to be slaves and assimilated to their own desires, while also standing as a front to warn the mainland of impending attacks with their radio tower. What about the children’s mothers? What do they think about their children being sent away? Well, as one man states, it’s scientific fact, you take a child from an aboriginal woman and she soon forgets him. There is no bond between mother and child, they are just animals being bred, property to be traded and left behind, worthless remnants of a time of hatred and abuse, of activities the white aristocrats’ wives seem very quick to turn away from, as though it isn’t happening right before their eyes.

Credit is due to Luhrmann and the filmmakers for creating a visually beautiful film, complete with his swooping crane shots, slowed down from the manic speed used in Moulin Rouge! The use of color is wonderful as well as the utilization of dust and smoke to create depth and texture whenever necessary. With these manipulations, however, comes a blatant feel of manufacturing—much of the film appears staged and rehearsed, an intentional stilted feel to add to the melodrama and old-time love-struck good guys versus the extreme villainy of the bad guys. I will admit to enjoying my villains having a conflict inside them, perhaps not necessarily evil, just doing evil things for what they think is right. In keeping with the aesthetic here, however, David Wenham’s Fletcher, the right-hand man of Carney, taking interests into his own heads whatever the cost, doesn’t have a redeeming bone in his body. As a result, you hate him from the start, with help from the close-ups showing his eyes form nefarious slits, and just know he will eventually get his in the end.

As for the good guys … that’s really where the strength of the story lies. Nicole Kidman is adequate as Lady Ashley, especially because she is turning up the over-acting and cheese factor, but her fake lips still make me shudder, remembering her beauty from just a short decade ago. On the other hand, Hugh Jackman is fantastic as the Drover, a man who lives for himself, befriending and making family of the aboriginals, despite how it makes him look to more “sophisticated” society. He definitely turns a corner from the start to the finish, evolving into a human being that yearns for life. I do believe he is the main character here, the catalyst for everything that happens, for better or worse. But the true stars are the aboriginal actors themselves. Both David Ngoombujarra, Drover’s trusted friend, and Angus Pilakui, the mystic King George, are perfect, but yet still are outdone by young Brandon Walters. Playing Nullah, the halfblooded boy at the center of the tale, Walters adds a level of compassion and unbridled trust with his adopted family of ranchers. Not only that, but he also serves as the narrator, telling the tale as it unfolds from his eyes, a young boy on his way to becoming a mystic himself, eyes opened to the whole world with innocence and untainted understanding.

Australia 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and The Drover (Hugh Jackman) find adventure and romance during their fateful journey across Australia. Photo Credit: James Fisher
[2] Newcomer Brandon Walters portrays a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy adrift in a segregated society that treats him as an outcast. Photo Credit: James Fisher


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