Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The one thing you can’t accuse filmmaker Baz Luhrmann of is short-changing his audience. With his latest film, AUSTRALIA (***), you get four movies in one over the course of 165 minutes: a cattle-driving western, a bombs-away WWII movie, a fish-out-of-water romance, and a socially-conscious racial message movie. With shades of RED RIVER, GONE WITH THE WIND, PEARL HARBOR, and RABBIT PROOF FENCE running through its cinematic veins, Luhrmann, himself an Australian, has cooked up an over-long but mostly entertaining Cliff’s Notes guide to the Outback. He has tamped down on his rambunctious editing style yet maintained his swooping sense of camera movement and flair for the melodramatic. It’s a visually ravishing epic, brimming with self-indulgence and a level of exuberance which can only come from a passionate filmmaker who has his sights set high. Working with three screenwriters, including Stuart Beattie (COLLATERAL), Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST), and Richard Flanagan, it’s as if Luhrmann felt he needed to cram everything he could possibly think of into the sprawling narrative of AUSTRALIA; it’s as if he’d never be making a film again. The film smells of too many cooks in the kitchen, but even when the story becomes unwieldy, Luhrmann’s showmanship serves as a potent reminder of his estimable visual skills.
AUSTRALIA revolves around an English aristocrat named Sarah Ashley (a prim and proper Nicole Kidman) who has come to Australia to check in on her supposedly philandering husband, who owns a cattle ranch called Faraway Downs. Upon her arrival, she learns that her husband has been murdered, apparently by an Aboriginal King. After firing a nefarious cattle baron (David Wenham, oozing villainy), Sarah recruits the mysterious Drover, a rugged, super-manly Hugh Jackman who let’s his ample chest beaver do most of his acting for him. The Drover is just that – a man defined by his job. All machismo, all the time. We never learn much more than surface details about him, or Sarah for that matter; they are archetypes rather than fully fleshed out characters. And in this sort of movie, that’s all we really need. We know that upon first glance, Sarah will hate Drover. And that Drover will have no use for Sarah. But before long, they’ll be making passionate, candle-lit love and engaging in juicy, movie-star make-out sessions. So Sarah and Drover embark on a perilous, 1,500 mile cattle drive, to the port of Darwin, in an effort to sell all the cattle and save the ranch. Along for the ride is the half-caste Nullah, rudely referred to as a “creamy” by everyone except for Sarah, Drover, and his family. Nullah, who represents the “stolen generation” of half-Aboriginal children born to Aboriginal women and white-European fathers, provides voice-over narration throughout the entirety of AUSTRALIA; it’s really his story when it’s all boiled down. After the cattle drive, we get tragedy: the Japanese bombing of Darwin. And before the credits start to roll, we also need to sort through the specifics of Sarah’s husband’s death, who’s responsible, and who will go down for it.

AUSTRALIA is over-stuffed, excessive in almost every department. It skirts the overly tragic by neatly tying up all of its threads by the end of its run time and while the film is never boring, it’s way too long and would’ve benefited from tighter cutting. In a way, it’s reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s theatrical cut of KING KONG, which felt like a DVD director’s cut. Fox bankrolled AUSTRALIA to the tune of $130 million, and judging from its first 10 days in theaters, the film will never come close to recuperating its cost solely from domestic ticket sales. It’s an old fashioned romantic epic that people over the age of 40 will really love (there was applause at the end of my screening) but that the under 40’s will probably avoid like the plague. And while the film is far from perfect, it’s a shame that more people won’t check it out. The cinematography by Mandy Walker is breathtaking and there are more than a handful of genuinely riveting set-pieces. There are some moments of dodgy CGI work (most notably during an otherwise rousing cattle stampede) and some people will find the more melodramatic moments to be a bit cheesy. But overall, Jackman and Kidman generate some tangible romantic heat and deliver solid performances, and Luhrmann’s desire to show off for his audience carries an undeniable energy. I was a big fan of what Luhrmann did with his hyper-active take on ROMEO JULIET but less impressed with his last feature, the overly-produced MOULIN ROUGE! AUSTRALIA rests somewhere in between those two films. I’d love to see Luhrmann go small next time out. Do something simple, something easy. But something tells me that “simple” and “easy” aren’t words in his vocabulary. AUSTRALIA may not be the Oscar contender that everyone at Fox thought they’d have on their hands, but it’s hardly a wipe-out, and it makes for a solid way to kill an afternoon at the movie theater.

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