Baz Luhrmann's 'Australia' Disappoints

20th Century Fox

City Pulse | November 24, 2008
Its grandiose title might encourage visions of a sweeping epic romance but Baz Luhrmann's bloated and boisterous movie is little more than a computer-graphic assisted western that takes place over the period of a few months. Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a refined Brit who leaves England for Australia in 1939 to be with her cattle-raising husband on the wild and woolly plains of Australia. Too bad for Lady Ashley that her ostensibly adulterous hubby has just been murdered when she arrives at their enormous rural Faraway Downs estate where a 13-year-old half-Aboriginal boy named Nullah (memorably played by Brandon Walters) and his mother live. Lady Ashley fires the estate's thieving manager (played by David Wenham) and takes on a freelance cattle driver, referred to only as "the Drover" (Hugh Jackman), to help deliver a heard of 1,500 cattle to a seaside point of sale to the Australian military.

Baz Luhrmann never sets a consistent tone for movie. There's too much camp for the film to be taken as a serious drama, and the filmmaker flirts with outdated '30s era cinema conventions of a John Ford western like Stagecoach along with a mishmash of touches from Out of Africa, Gone With the Wind, and The African Queen. Most disconcerting is David Hirschfelder's cheesy score that sounds like it was lifted from an episode of the old television show Bonanza. The fact that Luhrmann tries to wrap it all up in a vaguely political statement about the treatment of Aboriginals in Australia is infuriating for its paucity of depth.

You know you're in trouble when the film opens up with voice-over narration from Nullah, peppered with slang colloquialisms that make it feel like you're being read a bedtime story by the same cheeky child that should be put to sleep. Nullah and his Aboriginal grandfather King George (David Gulpilil) fish from a stream that will soon be diluted with a white man's blood, for which King George will be wrongfully accused of spilling. Lady Ashley's arrival in a nearby Northern Territory town coincides with "the Dover" engaged in a bar brawl defending the honor of Aboriginals. Ashley's spiffy new luggage makes its way into the scrap and her frilly white unmentionables go flying onto the dusty ground for the entertainment of the gathered throng. The scene goofs the movie onto its knees with an idiosyncratic punctuation of presentational artifice that will be reinforced with every dollop of cinematic anachronism that Luhrmann compulsively adds in his signature hurdy gurdy manner.

For her contribution Nicole Kidman makes a glamorous if inauthentic portrayal of an Englishwoman who takes to Australia's parched landscape like a fish to water. In her home country the steely actress blends in too easily, so that any proposed narrative tension about her character's discomfort with her "new" surroundings is all but forgotten. Hugh Jackman fares considerably better filling the shoes of an underdog stereotype with more machismo than a Mel Gibson and George Clooney combined. Together the actors weave a spell that generates a chemistry that fortuitously connects the film's otherwise disjointed leaps of plot and exposition.

Baz Luhrmann made his kitchen sink allegory of mid-20th century Hollywood blockbusters to call attention to the more than 100,000 half-caste and fully Aboriginal children who were taken away from their families by the Australian state between 1869 and 1969. But it's a swath of Australian history far better approached in Phillip Noyce's Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), based on Doris Pilkington Garimara's book. If there's a triumph here, it rests squarely on the shoulders of the film's untrained actor Brandon Walters as a fearless carrier of a transcendent message of multiracial identity. His unspoken truth is that Australia, like every other colonized country, must face up to the truth of human equality. That aspect of Luhrmann's movie is one you have to look out for in spite of the film's surface distractions. It's nowhere in the script.

(20th Century Fox) Rated PG-13, 165 mins. (C-)
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