Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harood, and Richard Flanagan
Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley
Hugh Jackman as Drover
Bryan Brown as King Carney
David Wenham as Neil Fletcher
Brandon Walters as Nullah
Rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language.
For nearly five years, there has been tons of ink wasted on the rather massive production of Baz Luhrmann's long awaited "Australia." Actors changed, the studio wanted to pull out., Luhrmann went over budget. There was hardly a screening of the film before its release date the day before Thanksgiving, and there were reports of Luhrmann traveling to Australia to put a few finishing touches on the film a week before. But no matter what kind of a headache went into the making of the film, the only thing that mattered was how the finished product turned out. After walking out of the theatre, complete with the one other person in the audience, I could not figure out if it turned out to be worth it or not.
"Australia" is highly reminiscent of the Hollywood film epics of the past. Films like Victor Flemings "Gone with the Wind," or even to an extent David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago." Films timeless in their own respects, filled with memorable characters, some beautiful instrumental pieces, sweeping imagery, and heightened melodrama. They end up following some kind of formula, but its very easy to become swept away in the grandoise nature of it all. Its very clear that "Australia" wishes to be held in the same regard as those films, and its that obvious ambition that makes the film more of an Oscar bait sort instead of something with heart and soul. I did not see the sweat that went into the making of the movie, but instead just the hopeful promise of awards consideration.
The film begins in 1939, perhaps a throwback to the year "Gone with the Wind" was released for the first time. Through on-screen text, the story of the Stolen Generation is told, children who are neither white nor black and are not held in high regard to anyone, often shipped to a nearby island to learn about religion. Told from the perspective of Nullah, a half caste boy who learns of magic from his grandfather King George, we learn of Lady Sarah Ashley, a young woman who arrives from England to take care of a cattle ranch that needs an owner after the mysterious death of her husband, suspected to be at the hand of King George. She wishes to make the ranch a thriving entity once more, but her noble attempts are stopped by King Carney and Neil Fletcher, two partners hoping to corner the entire beef market. Fletcher had a position on the ranch, but was dismissed after Sarah became suspicious of his actions. Sarah soon becomes the guardian of Nullah after his mother dies in an accident, and she also finds love with Drover, who helps bring the remaining cattle across the continent to be sold to various members of the army. Meanwhile, the two lovers become crossed in the continents preparations for war after the attack of Pearl Harbor, while also trying to create an odd family structure with the half-caste Nullah as their "son."
As said earlier, these sweeping period dramas often find some kind of niche in their storytelling, but Luhrmann becomes almost too comfortable in stealing from these other, and better, films. Even in the two main characters, Sarah and Drover, he finds several cliche ways of portraying them, and bringing them together. Sarah is a no-nonsense, stuck up type, someone that would have easily been portrayed by Katherine Hepburn in the films of old. Drover is a strong male figure, who fits the hero persona and also has a sweeter and milder side. From their first meeting, comical as the English Sarah sees a few odd sights during her treck in the Outback, through their first passionate embrace, all the way up to a few "tragic" events that take place in the films third act, the love story between Sarah and Drover is forced, one-dimensional, and highly artificial. During the final few scenes, where my heart should have ached for Sarah and Drover to finally be together, I simply could not bring myself to care.
The two lead performances do not bode well in giving the film a few bonus points either. Nicole Kidman is obviously trying to channel Hepburn, or even Vivien Leigh, but she does nothing to make her character memorable, or even someone to care about. I always did like Nicole Kidman, despite the constant bashing that she seems to get about being "box office poison," but this is a very one-dimensional portrayal, despite also being an underwritten character. But I have seen actors create something out of nothing before, and Kidman does not even try to do this. I never found High Jackman to have the acting chops to pull off something strongly dramatic, especially in something as large as this. The best acting work seems to come from Brandon Walters, who plays little Nullah, and I enjoyed the unabashed innocence that he brings to the character.
The second section of the film important to discuss are the visuals, which were a strong push during the initial advertisements. Luhrmann does put more work into the visual styles of the film instead of the substance, but the way he shoots the story did not thrill me very much either. A few sections of the film-a passionate kiss in the rain, an attack by the Japanese towards the end, and a cattle stampede-do generate visuals that are necessary to see on the big screen, but Luhrmann also shoots with an odd color tint, emphasing the pinks and lighter colors giving the whole film a dreamlike aura. Instead of adding to the beauty of the piece, I found this took away from giving the characters realistic hues. Even the constant references to "The Wizard of Oz," and the symbolic singing of "Over the Rainbow" seemed obvious and by the end I have had enough of the tune. Perhaps he wanted to show the film from a more innocent perspective as Nullah is our narrator, but even if this was an intention, the finished result is still highly problematic.
By the end of the film, and it is a very long trip down the road of this 165 minute trek, I walked out of "Australia" with no emotional investment other than a few shrugs and few drooping eyes. There was hardly a single character. moment, or image that I did not feel I had seen in another film and in a better one. It's been over a day since I've even watched the film, and nothing has stayed with me. It's another hundred million invested into a film that simply was an awards hopeful. The project seemed ambitious, but its filled with clearly being made as a copy of the epic films of the past. It did not feel like Luhrmann wanted to give originality or dimensions to his characters, he just wanted to follow the standard equation of the epic period drama. Instead of being swept away in the old-fashioned drama, I felt very detached and separated. I still hope that one day a director can make an ambitious period epic again, one where there was clearly a large amount of sweat and work that goes into every frame. A vision that is not filled with images of awards dancing in their head. Luhrmann failed by obviously wanting to fit into a certain niche, and instead of making the film something of his own, he makes it something we've seen before, and a few with nothing special to offer either. Seven years between projects, and it seemed hardly worth it.