Pompous Rather Than Majestic

Everyone knows Baz Luhrmann doesn’t make ordinary, conventional films, but Australia is probably a far bigger cinematic ambition than his previous niche films. Films are not about formulas, so it’s impossible to be its own individual creation and at the same time please everybody. In Australia‘s case, it’s a romance, a comedy, a melodrama, and a serious film about history. It’s even a showcase of local film making, and can be oftentimes dull, especially for unsentimentally practical, unromantic cynics.

Set just before the South Pacific invasion during World War II, The tale centers on English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) who journeys to remote Northern Territory of Australia to make her husband sell his ranch and return to England. It turns out she inherits the running of a cattle station, Faraway Downs, after the tragic death of her husband. When local underhanded cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) plots to steal her land, Sarah reluctantly joins forces with a brawling, surly, social, no-nonsense outcast called The Drover (Hugh Jackman) as an unlikely crew to drive 2,000 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of the country’s most stark landscape to Darwin, to sell to the government, which is at war with the Japanese. She also runs into Fletcher (David Wenham), a spiteful man who’s secretly working with land baron Carney (Bryan Brown) to ruin the station. She is going to get a harsh introduction to life in the outback, and must fight for her land. A Dickensian subplot is added to involve a half-white, half-aborigine boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters) who also acts as the narrator. Winsome and charming Nullah constantly hides from the authorities that want to separate him from his family.

Lady Ashley also becomes a surrogate mother to Nullah after Fletcher kills Nullah’s mother. As they go across the unforgiving lands of the continent, the Japanese bomb Darwin, engulfing their world in chaos and war. A host of adventures peaks with the climactic bombing of Darwin by the Japanese. Eventually, an attack by Japanese warplanes serves as a backdrop to the final conflict between Fletcher, Lady Ashley, the Driver, and Nullah. The experience of driving the cattle to Darwin creates a bond between Lady Ashley and the Driver, which leads to romance. In time she will also have to fight for the people she loves, and even her life.  

Stunning Walters is delightful yet heart breaking as little Nullah, the doe-eyed boy who brings all of these diverse elements and characters together. He has the most expressive eyes I have ever seen on a human being. He is the heart and soul of the film, and his performance is so astounding he steals every scene. Here scenes with Nullah are very emotional and touching. Jackman has a natural charm to soften the rugged edges. He is also very adequate as the Drover because he is one of the best when it comes to combining romance and action in a story. Kidman is surprisingly befitting, not for her dramatic performance but for her comic timing. Luhrmann always manages to bring out the best in her, it seems. As the stuck-up English snob arousing great merriment, she nails it. This turns out to be a brave, multi-layered performance that underscores her perfect timing and gift for comedy. Thematically, not only does it offer some strong moral elements, but it also has a strong pro-capitalist attitude. It highly praises competition and reprimands monopoly.

The problem of Australia is not about the performances, but it’s about other core elements of filmmaking. For starter, Luhrmann often tells us what’s going rather than simply shows it, which inflicts undesirable effects on the narration. Romance, drama, comedy and history references of Japanese bombing of Darwin in World War II and Australia’s stolen generation, together establish the epic ingredients for the story. The result is yet another project of simplistic and stereotypical nationalism where hubris has turned, yet again, into absolute kitsch. Of course, it is visually arresting, with some notably Remington-style painterly landscapes. Despite scenes that take your breath away, its romance, drama, history references are not original enough to be great ones.

As regards the narrative structure, the implicit theology of the story is about practices of spiritualism where the spirits and the supernatural practices are portrayed as an improbable contrivance in a story characterized by a sudden unexpected solution to a seemingly intractable problem that rescues the characters at key plot points. By the end of the story, the excessive, miraculous ending, becomes redundant and wearisome. Australia is vague enough about the spiritism and occultism of Nullah’s religion to mislead, especially when the young missionary shows up and speaks about God’s deliverance in the film’s ultimate positive climax.

The film’s real problem lies in its politically correct New Age worldview where it tries to be political, but it glides lightly over the issue as well. There’s no moment depicting the true horror of the plight of the Stolen Generation, which could have made the film much stronger. The film makes an attempt to address the racial prejudice of the time, which is commendable, but the depiction of aboriginal people as uniformly generous and mystical beings seems counter-effective.

What could have been a sprawling, romantic epic turns out to be another exercise of a melodrama in ennui. Rather than being old-fashioned or classic, it’s old-school and conventional. Instead of memorable romance, it offers exaggerated sentimentalism and clichés. The banal story and predictable ending seems a great departure for Luhrmann, whose work is usually more inventive.

There is nothing new here, unless what’s new for you is a series of spectacular set pieces strung together by a rambling plot determined to encompass every momentous historical event that occurred in the Northern Territory during the period. If this film teaches us anything, it must be the fact that by mixing David Lean epics with George Lucas spectacle and an old-fashioned sensibility that pays homage to great American westerns will barely work.

Australia is not brilliant but it’s still decent to watch. It is just ambitious more than marvel-inspiring, pompous rather than majestic. With its emphasis on theatricality rather than story, it may not be a perfect film, but it is still far from a bad one.

Rating: 3/5

To see Australia in theatres, check your local listings, or visit the http://www.australiamovie.com/

Criticetc is a journalism/film/book critic in Bangkok and Pattaya, and at http://www.pattayacitylive.com      and http://www.cinemainreview.com

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