November, 2008, Drama

There’s a sturdy, appealing yarn buried deep inside this bloated piece of romantic adventure; it’s too bad director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge) couldn’t resist the urge to burden his sweeping homage to the land “down under” with every movie cliché Hollywood’s perfected over its checkered past. Armed with a pair of box office stars, (a lithe Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, film’s current male beefcake of choice) the handsome cinematography of Mandy Walker and breathtaking images of the Aussie outback, Luhrmann has repotted the Hollywood western amid the desolate beauty of Kununurra, Western Australia. The director and his three co-screenwriters cram barroom brawls, a cattle drive, a hopelessly improbable 40’s-style romance, miscegenation, various murders, and the 1942 Japanese attack on Darwin into the capacious running time of this saga, which clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes. All these incidents are strung along a storyline which purportedly examines the wretched treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples through the first two third’s of the 20th century. If Luhrmann’s reach exceeds his grasp, you’ve got to admire the sheer chutzpah employed in bringing this retro-extravaganza to the screen.

Australia begins in 1937 with the arrival in Darwin of Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) en route to “Far Away”, the ranching station owned and operated by her long-absent husband. She’s delivered there by Drover (Jackman), a cattleman who has agreed to drive a herd of 1500 cows owned by Lord Ashley to Darwin in order to supply an English military contract. When the haughty British aristocrat arrives, she finds the family manse in a dilapidated condition and her husband stretched out dead on the dining room table, victim of a stab wound supposedly delivered by “King George”, an elderly aborigine. But this venerable gentleman’s daughter happens to be the mistress of Lord Ashley’s white ranch manager and their son Nullah represents an encumbrance to the manager’s plans to wed the only daughter of King Carney, Ashley’s rapacious cattle-raising competitor. 

In short order, Lady Ashley fires the ranch manager, recruits Drover to replace him, witnesses the drowning death of Nullah’s mother and informally adopts the boy in order to prevent his forced relocation to a missionary school designed to properly “acculturate” native children. Then it’s off to Darwin, where the now brazen widow undercuts Carney’s efforts to win the government beef contract before rapturously falling into Drover’s arms. The lovers return with Nullah to Far Away and set up what was then referred to as “lighthouse-keeping”. 

The years pass quickly; Lady Ashley refurbishes the station while mothering Nullah, Drover plies his trade as a peripatetic cattle herder and King Carney plots to acquire Far Away and eliminate his business rival by means both fair and foul. WW II intervenes; Ashley, Drover and Nullah are separated by the conflict only to be later reunited in time for Nullah’s granddad to take the boy for his “walkabout”, the male initiation into aboriginal adulthood. 

Despite Australia’s sweeping, visual sprawl (reminiscent of such Western epics as Giant and The Searchers) Luhrmann’s movie suffers from a stilted screenplay that sounds as though it was written by committee and the hackneyed dialogue’s made even more annoying by Nullah’s voice-over narration. It falls to Brandon Walters, (an appealing newcomer with dark eyes the size of manhole covers) to explain critical pieces of the plot cloying, pigden English not heard since Dean Stockwell played Rudyard Kipling’s mix-race street boy Kim over half-century ago. Walters and the adult aboriginal members of the cast are consistently undermined by the script’s lines, making the native Australians appear inarticulate simply because they’re forced to speak in a language not their own. The principals don’t fair much better; Kidman’s lines sashay from the archly aristocratic to the politically correct while Jackman has little to do but mumble PG-13 epithets and doff his shirt to display an enviably-buffed physique. 

Kidman has yet to demonstrate the kind of allure required to assume the mantle of the classic femme fatales of the past like Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck and Rita Hayworth. It’s not that she lacks talent; in varied roles throughout her career, (To Die For, The Interpreter) she’s displayed a feline charm reminiscent of the early Kate Hepburn, but Kidman’s choice of roles also includes some monumental clunkers, (Bewitched, The Invasion, Cold Mountain) in which her characters appear so mannered and self-conscious that the actress gives the impression she’s embarrassed to be playing them. Perhaps she lacks the chutzpah, (so effortlessly displayed by Angelina Jolie for example) required to convincingly play the kind of larger-than-life character that’s required to really make this film convincing.

Despite the travelogue beauty of Western Australia’s vastness and the period feel of Darwin’s frontier-town atmosphere, the director employs far too many computer-generated scenes to sustain his purported commitment to authenticity; the cattle stampede looks especially cheesy and the Japanese air attack on Darwin looks cribbed from Michael Bay’s 6 year old war movie Pearl Harbor. But Australia’s most grievous deficiency comes in its smarmy references to the mistreatment of the island’s native populations. For a fraction of the cost of this film, Australian director Phillip Noyce explored that issue in Rabbit Proof Fence, a movie that treated its equally talented aboriginal cast with the respect and dignity they deserve. 

While everything about this movie is simultaneously out-sized and dumb-ed down, there’s no denying the attraction of its storyline and the appeal of slick characterizations provided by old Aussie film pros like Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, both of whom look appropriately grizzled in their supporting roles. For all its cinematic clichés and John Ford-ian pretensions, Australia manages to deliver a generous dose of old fashioned story-telling that’s curiously satisfying; to American audiences old enough to fondly remember the big-budget Hollywood efforts of the 40’s and 50’s, with their handsome casts, maudlin dialogue and meticulously detailed sets, this contemporary retread serves up a surprisingly pleasant dose of old-fashioned nostalgia.

The verdict?  Grandiose and silly, but embarrassingly easy to sit through.    


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