Frank Hatherley in Sydney
19 Nov 2008 11:15
Dir: Baz Luhrmann. Aus/US. 2008. 165 mins
With Australia, Baz Luhrmann has fearlessly gone for the biggest, lushest goal he could imagine - a romantic, old-fashioned epic to stand beside Gone With The Wind. Though it fails to reach such Hollywood heyday heights, Australia's combination of high adventure, awesome landscapes and panting passions is sure to bring out romance-starved adult audiences - probably skewing female - when the film's international roll-out starts in Australia and the US on November 26.
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman effortlessly don the mantles of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable here; the screen is crammed with ravishing images (gorgeous sunsets, limitless horizons, crazed cattle, pounding horses, dive-bombing Japanese warplanes); and top-grade visual effects have been added to more or less everything. If the restless richness becomes somewhat indigestible before the film's considerable length is reached, that's part of the Luhrmann package. Who else would dare such excess?
The most expensive Australian film ever made at $100m-plus with a no-expenses-spared marketing budget, Australia is also the focus of a linked $40m Tourism Australia campaign (also shot by Luhrmann), which should ensure a near-blanket awareness in Australia and pretty high penetration elsewhere by the time this much-anticipated epic opens.
Nicole Kidman's ice-and-fire Lady Sarah Ashley is the centre of the movie. A staccato prologue in rural England establishes that her wandering husband wants to sell Faraway Downs, his Australian cattle farm, for a fraction of its perceived worth. In a swiftly-edited thrice she arrives in 1938 Darwin, Australia's most northern coastal township, and has her posh luggage scattered during a bar brawl involving a rough-hewn rider/cowboy called The Drover. Jackman's introduction here is pure spaghetti western.
The loose, unshaven Drover drives the tutting, overdressed Lady Sarah two days inland to Faraway Downs, a rundown wreck of a property, picturesquely positioned on a vast, drought-hit plain. She meets the mainly aboriginal staff, the drunken accountant (Thompson) who has been taking part in a cattle scam with Fletcher (Wenham), shifty son-in-law of the all-powerful local baron (Brown). Also in the household is Nullah (Walters), a half-caste boy who lives in fear of being taken away from his mother and sent to a government institution, the fate of many such children, now known as 'The Stolen Generation'.
Of course, The Drover and The Lady hate each other on sight. "I mix with dingos, not duchesses," he says. But soon they begin to appreciate each other's good points - for example, his powerful pectorals gleaming during a moonlit wash from a tin bucket. Eventually, during a mighty trek through the outback with a mob of dangerously skittish cattle, they fall swooningly in love. The cattle delivered, the partnership established, Australia sweeps on to Part 2: Attack on Darwin Harbour. Though the dramatic pace never slackens, it's here that the film's too-generous 165 minute length becomes a factor.
Jackman is the epitome of handsome, untamed individualism: Kidman tempers haughty stridency with a delicate comic playfulness, touching in a scene with young Nullah where she teaches him, with no confidence in her own ability, to sing Over The Rainbow. Indeed, the 1939 film Wizard of Oz is a surprising motif in Luhrmann's Australia. The Wizard in this new Oz is Nullah's grandfather, played with trademark gravitas by veteran aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, who climbs mountains, casts spells and throw spears with uncanny accuracy.
Walters, aged 12, is perfect as the beautiful, troubled Nullah; Thompson is appealing as a good-hearted double-dealer; Brown and Wenham are a pair of deepest-dyed nasties, brazenly melodramatic in their villainy. It's a while since we saw a baddie leave us crying "curse you!"
Apart from Luhrmann himself, there are three distinguished writers credited for the screenplay – Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Carribean, Collateral), Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. Similarly, two top film editors worked here - Dody Dorn and Michael McCusker - though the story-telling is trademark Luhrman, fast-paced and relentless.
Technically, this is ravishing, from production and costume designs from Catherine Martin to DoP Mandy Walker's often-majestic footage. Australia is long on digital effects, mostly to good purpose, though some of the wartime Darwin harbour wide shots are wisely held for the briefest of seconds.
The soundtrack is a potpourri of heightened effects and soaring musical themes. Just when you think you have recognised something, off goes the orchestra to something else. The cumulative effect is a little like the editing – restless.