Australia (2008) dir. Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown
Baz Luhrmann’s long-waited follow-up to “Moulin Rouge” is an unabashed romantic epic. Luhrmann wasn’t shy about it either, his first attempt to make a film about Alexander the Great faltered, which seems to have been replaced with this sprawling tale with the slightly pretentious title of “Australia”. While the thought of an innovative and progressive filmmaker regressing into nostalgia filmmaking is a disappointment, the potential for something wonderful and inspiring to emerge is always there with Baz Luhrmann.
It's 1939 and Nicole Kidman plays Lady Ashley, a British aristocrat, who travels to Australia to join her husband on his cattle ranch. When she arrives she finds him dead, apparently shot by a wandering Aboriginal chief. Her neighbour, King Carney has been buying up all the ranches in the area so he can monopolize his industry. Ashley's unwilling to sell and hires her hunky guide Drover (Hugh Jackman) to help her drive the cattle to Darwin. Drover and Ashley are worlds apart in the class system, but both are single, good-looking and isolated from anyone else, so naturally an attraction, courtship and then relationship begins.
Narrating this story is a young 'half-breed' aboriginal boy, Nullah, who becomes central to the story. One of the heinous and overtly racist laws in Australia at the time was a relocation policy which allowed authorities to remove half-breed children from their mothers and train them for the military. Ashley attempts to protect the boy, but in doing so reveals a vulnerability which her enemies can use against her. When the Pacific War begins Australia finds itself a target of the Japanese. In a surprise attack on Darwin, Ashley, Nullah and Drover find themselves separated and desperate to save each others lives.
Surprisingly despite a running time of 165mins, the film is remarkably focused. It takes place over a timespan of only a few years, and is confined to two main locations – the port city of Darwin and Lady Ashley’s Outback cattle ranch – as well as the long distance between them. Even the conflicts are paired down to Ashley’s feud with her neighbouring rivals and her fight to keep Nullah from relocation by the government.
The backbone of the film is a lengthy movement of Ashley’s cattle from her ranch to Darwin. This journey is built up well and executed with the tension and drama of a great epic action scene. There’s no doubt Luhrmann aspires for the grandeur of Lawrence’s journey to Aqaba in “Lawrence of Arabia” or Tom Dunson’s cattle drive in “Red River”. It's the centerpiece of the film and it holds everything together sufficiently.
The film is let down by the obligatory relatively conflict-free love story. When the prudish Ashley first meets the rugged Drover they are like oil in water – Ashley even says clichéd line - “Even if you were last person on earth I would never go to bed with you (sic)”. The professional relationship turns into some not-so-sweaty sex and then they are together. Afterwards their relationship is barely challenged. At one point Drover’s desire to get back into the Outback and drive cattle for six months causes a break-up, but their reactions seem unnatural and unthreatening.
The main concern with selling this romance to the audience is unfortunately the ages of the characters. Kidman is 41, Jackman is 40. The last two most popular romances arguably are “Titanic” and “The Notebook” (and maybe even Luhrmann's own "Romeo + Juliet". In these films their lovers were in their early twenties – a time when audiences can recall for themselves those innocent years when love was fresh, exciting and all consuming. The prospect of losing it made the characters make risky, questionable decisions. Ashley and Drover never have that spark and it’s never exciting.
As for the look of the film most discussions, reviews and commentary I’ve read acknowledge the visual beauty of the expansive Australian vistas and Mandy Walker’s cinematography. Sure there are some stunning shots and big scenes of breathtaking beauty, but what astonished me more was the frequent use of what appeared to my eye as unnecessary green-screen process shots. In almost every major set piece Luhrmann used these painful green-screened shots of the actors against the often blown-out white backgrounds. Each and every time these shots jumped out at me and took me out of the picture.
There's enough honesty and integrity in "Australia" to recommend the film, but unfortunately not enough emotional investment or gravitas to truly hit the high mark it aspires to be.