Australia

Australia (2008)

Australia first published by Film4

Summary: Following his ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’, poly-hyphenate Baz Luhrmann turns to national epic, in an optimistic tale of adventure, romance, war and racial reconciliation Down Under.   

Review: Way back in 1915 when D.W. Griffiths made his Civil War and Reconstruction epic The Birth of a Nation, he may have been expanding the ambitions of cinema itself, but even he was not hubristic enough to call his film simply ‘America’. A little under a century later, Baz Luhrmann too has turned to patriotic epic – and while his plea for reconciliation between Australia’s indigenous and colonial populations is a welcome corrective to the notorious racism of Griffiths’ film, Luhrmann’s Australia is nearly three hours of sprawling hubris, writ as large as a wide screen can accommodate.  

It is 1939, and childless Lady Sarah Ashton (Nicole Kidman) heads from the gentility of her English estate to the wilds of Australia’s Northern Territory, hoping to secure the return of her husband by selling off the ranch that has been keeping him Down Under for so long. In fact Lord Ashton has been speared in the back shortly before she arrives, and Sarah soon finds herself embroiled in a vicious land struggle with cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his ruthless station manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). Fortunately she has help from the rough-edged Drover (Hugh Jackman), a local mixed-race boy named Nullah (excellent newcomer Brandon Walters) and a small team of loyal employees, who must all race across the desert to Darwin to break Carney’s monopoly on the Armed Forces’ meat supply.

  Soon Sarah, Drover and the recently orphaned Nullah have formed a loving, if not quite legitimate, family unit, but there are further troubles brooding on the endless horizon. Sarah struggles to cope with both boys’ desire to go walkabout, there is the constant threat that Nullah will be taken off to a Christian mission (to be ‘dislocated’ from his ‘full-black aborigine’), and with World War II now in full swing, the Japanese air force is about to bomb Darwin. Still, in this wide open land, there can always be hope for change.   

Make no mistake – Australia is a fantastic spectacle, using the country’s vast and varied outback terrains as a natural (or occasionally CG-tweaked) canvas on which to set the different characters’ emotional journeys. And if that is not grand enough already, Luhrmann also paints his film with a whole pallet of genres: there is the sweeping romance of Gone With the Wind and The African Queen, the nostalgic fantasy of The Wizard of Oz, the warfilm melodrama of Pearl Harbour, the mythic aboriginal mysticism of Ten Canoes (or, heh heh, Crocodile Dundee), and the cattle-driving adventure of countless westerns (complete with a band of seven riders and an evil rancher). Just as well, too, for without all this razzmatazz, the plotting and characterisation are themselves far too thin to carry the film through its epic duration. 

Australia

Luhrmann rose to prominence with the ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’ of Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) – all colourful, defiantly cheesy pastiches where genre was a mere plaything and almost anything went. Now he is embarking on a second projected trilogy, this time rooted in epic, and Australia is the first of these – but he has in no way abandoned his commitment to kitsch. The film is not just riddled with treacly sentiments and risible lines, but revels in the archetypal power of cinematic cliché – which is all very well, except that such a postmodern approach tends to undermine the serious manner in which Luhrmann attempts to tackle the man-made tragedy of Australia’s Stolen Generations and of the nation’s recent moves towards reconciliation. A classy dame and a coarse adventurer might make strange (if utterly conventional) bedfellows, but the film’s intermixing of wilful preposterousness and deadly earnest is far harder to swallow.    

What is more, although Luhrmann’s heart is no doubt in the right place, there is something rather patronising about the way that Aborigines tend to be depicted here as magical, mystical wizards of Oz, rather than as ordinary human beings with their own rich cultural heritage. Luhrmann prefigures change and reconciliation by depicting a traditional Darwin bar that admits, under rather special circumstances, first a woman and then a ‘boong’ to drink. Here we see a colonial institution breaking with its long-held conventions and opening its doors for the first time to those it has long excluded as inferiors. Such moments of unprecedented inclusivity may be touching, but they have the unfortunate side-effect of recalling the terrible destruction wrought on native communities – and still felt in them today – by the white man’s poison. Luhrmann may prefer to focus on Australia’s inhuman ‘assimilation policy’ that saw bi-racial children torn from their families and institutionalised to ‘breed the black out of them’, but the European introduction of alcohol to the Great Southern Land has in fact proved no less ruinous in unsticking the glue of Aboriginal identity and society.  

Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006) engaged with pre-colonial Aboriginal culture, the same director’s The Tracker (2002) addressed the early settlers’ oppression of the Indigenous population, and Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) exposed the horrors of the Stolen Generations. Australia tries to do all these things, while also being a larger-than-life romance that will put a spring in the viewer’s step, and a hymn to a country where nationalism and racism have tended to go hand in hand. The result is an endurance test of good intentions and tangled ideas, exploited facts and fuzzy fictions, where the performances, like the plot, are poured onto the beautiful backgrounds with the broadest – and clumsiest – of strokes. Australia is a sight to see, but not one to cherish, or to think about too hard.

Verdict: Baz Luhrmann’s western/melodrama/romance/national epic is an overlong touchy-feely phantasmagoria of pure cinema and uncomfortable history.   

Anton Bitel