Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David
Wenham, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown
RunTime: 2 hrs 35 mins
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Rating: PG (Violence and Scene of Intimacy)
Official Website: http://www.australiamovie.com/
Opening Day: 24 December 2008
"Australia" is an epic and romantic action adventure,
set in that country on the explosive brink of World War II.
In it, an English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) travels to the
faraway continent, where she meets a rough-hewn local (Hugh
Jackman) and reluctantly agrees to join forces with him to
save the land she inherited. Together, they embark upon a
transforming journey across hundreds of miles of the world's
most beautiful yet unforgiving terrain, only to still face
the bombing of the city of Darwin by the Japanese forces that
attacked Pearl Harbor. With his new film, Luhrmann is painting
on a vast canvas, creating a cinematic experience that brings
together romance, drama, adventure and spectacle.
The movie to so boldly name itself after a continent better have similar epic proportions. And sure enough, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is very much like the Outback it attempts to tell a story of. It is sweeping and majestic, it is rough and untamed, and it is most of all awe-inspiring.
Fusing history with good old-fashioned Hollywood romantic melodrama, Australia is both a paean to the filmmaker’s native homeland as it is a Baz tribute to the grand classics of yesteryears (think Gone with the Wind or The African Queen). Indeed, there is no denying the scope or ambition on display here- Baz gallantly stages both rampaging herds of cattle and ravaging fleets of Japanese warplanes bombing the Australian shore.
So ambitious is this movie that it feels like two movies rolled into one. The first can best be described as a Western that begins when Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) arrives in northern Australia from England to track down a suspected wayward husband and visit her property. Greeted at port by a rough-hewn cowboy known as the Drover (Hugh Jackman), Lady Ashley is at once taken aback by what appears to be the crudeness of the land and its people.
When she finally reaches the Faraway Downs ranch, she finds her husband murdered and the ranch threatened by the baron of a cattle empire, Lord Carney (Bryan Brown). As she gradually discovers the charm of the place that her late husband was drawn to, she enlists the help of the Drover to drive the cattle down to the port of Darwin for sale to the army in an attempt to save the ranch from bankruptcy.
Not to forget of course that her arduous journey will not be without ardour. The once uptight, even conceited, English aristocrat Lady Ashley will learn to appreciate the beauty of the Outback and the roguish charms of the Drover. In true Hollywood fashion, the Lady and the Drover’s initial contempt for each other will develop into passion, wholly reminiscent of Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.
Romance aside, Baz Luhrmann also intends to tell a story of his nation’s racist legacy, more specifically, the plight of the Aborigines and the “stolen generations”- part-White, mixed-race Aboriginal children. He does this rivetingly through the eyes of Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), who lives on the ranch and joins Lady Ashley on the cattle drive. Through their journey, Lady Ashley will also come to discover her mothering instincts as she starts to treat the motherless Nullah as her own.
But this is only the first half of the movie. Part II of the sprawling epic is essentially a war movie as the threat of the Japanese invasion looms large over the land. The Drover, refusing to be tamed on the ranch, insists on going on another cattle drive. Lady Ashley, on the other hand, is left alone to fend for Nullah, first at Faraway Downs and then at Darwin, as Nullah is forcibly taken by the local police and sent to a deracinated mission school.
If Part I emphasizes the emotional bond between Lady Ashley and Nullah, then Part II highlights more saliently the injustice of the nation’s former unjust treatment of half-caste children to “have the black bred out of them”. Baz puts in the spotlight this “re-education” policy and exposes the Whites for the racists that they are. But though his intentions are noble, Baz’s regular use of Aboriginal mystical powers threatens to pander to the tastes of the very people he aims to denounce.
There is also a distinct lack of subtlety that threatens to derail the movie. The filmmaker of punk-rock Romeo + Juliet and visually dizzying Moulin Rouge fills the frenetic opening with slapstick that fortunately settles into something more assured and tasteful by the time romance unfolds. Luckily also for Baz, his epic is blessed with two divine stars- Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman- certainly among the most luminous actors from Oz.
Ms. Kidman lends her indomitable grace and empathy to Lady Ashley in definitely one of her best performances of recent years. First as the primp aristocrat and later as a confident Lady in her own right, she lights up the screen in a delightfully expressive way. And Mr. Jackman proves his mantle as People’s Sexiest Man Alive, sharing sizzling screen chemistry with Ms. Kidman.
For all its excesses (courtesy of Baz Luhrmann), Australia shares the land’s lush gorgeous beauty. It evokes the grandeur of motion pictures that audiences used to flock to so to be swept off their feet. In the film, young Nullah derives inspiration and strength from the song “Over the Rainbow” that Lady Ashley teaches him. To borrow a quip from “The Wizard of Oz”- No, Dorothy, we most certainly are not in Kansas anymore. We’re very much in the Land of Oz.
Review by Gabriel Chong
(Lush, grand and epic- it is a modern day Gone with the Wind, promising and delivering greatness and grandeur the way Hollywood used to)