A Picture

Yeah, I know, I tell you I don’t do movie reviews and yet here’s another one of the damn things. What can I say – I feel compelled to comment on this one for the benefit of my buddies who worked on it and all my overseas readers who may or may not care to see it. So sue me – I’m making this blogging thing up as I go along.

First of all, I’ll get this out of the way so those of you looking for my usual acerbic cynicism can go read The Onion – I liked Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and I’m going to say mostly nice things about it. It’s a big, corny, campy mash of Gone With the Wind, Once Upon a Time in the West, Out of Africa and The Wizard of Oz that makes no excuse for being a melodrama of epic proportions. In fact, it is aligned so much in temperament with Luhrmann’s three ‘Red Curtain’ movies (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge) that I’m not sure why he has publicly divorced it from those films – it seems to me that preparing an audience to approach it as part of that ouvre might actually help them understand where it’s coming from.

There’s really not a lot to the plot of Australia. It’s a simple tale in two acts that weaves together a three-way love story, cultural biases & preconceptions, and big set action pieces, into a saga of grand, technicolour brushtrokes. It’s not David Lean, and it’s not Sergio Leone (even if it nods at both those directors) but it truly is Baz Luhrmann.

It is, in my opinion, a good thing that Russell Crowe, who was originally cast in the part of ‘The Drover’, pulled out of the film. There would be few who would disagree that, in this picture, Hugh Jackman really owns the role of the stereotypical laconic bushman, and as much as I really didn’t quite buy into the supposed passion between Jackman and Nicole Kidman (playing the prissy-but-ultimately-feisty Lady Sarah Ashley), I think I’d have bought it far less with Crowe doing the canoodling. The cast does a pretty credible job in the main, with Brandon Walters as ‘Nullah’ upstaging just about everyone without apparently even trying, and Bryan Brown and David Wenham playing bad guys of such extreme pantomime that I expected that they just might attempt to tie Kidman to some railway tracks.

For Australians, the film is a real round-up of familiar local performing talent. Barry Otto, Bruce Spence, Jack Thompson, David Gulpilil, Arthur Dignam, John Jarratt, Max Cullen, Sandy Gore and a host of other recognizable faces flit across the screen, filling the movie with a nostalgia that few foreigners will feel. The Australian countryside never looked more spectacular, lush with beauty from billabong to Never Never. With all these elements in play it’s as if Luhrmann has tried to distill the essence of every Australian ‘landscape’ film ever made (and by that I mean the films of grand throw, such as Sunday Too Far Away; The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; Mad Max; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Dead Heart; The Man From Snowy River; Rabbit Proof Fence et al) into one swirling mélange of Aussie popular film history. The music by David Hirschfelder operates on a similar level of pastiche, deftly weaving together quotes and variations on Sheep May Safely Graze, Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Waltzing Matilda with the original score. Other references to Australian culture abound; Nullah’s dog is called Jedda; Lady Ashley’s horse is called Capricornia. It’s this cheeky love of detail, and the film’s sense of fun with the high drama that confidently keeps it from veering towards what could easily have been a rudderless mess. It’s truly operatic cinema.

The film is beautifully photographed by Mandy Walker and the costumes by Catherine Martin are gritty or pretty, as required. The production design and art direction are rich and elaborate – unsurprising in a Luhrmann picture, and the film sounds good and solid, if a little workmanlike (personal beef: if you’re making all your other components so hyperbolic, why wimp out on the sound?). There is rather too much music for my taste, and some of the visual effects are a bit ropey, but that’s hardly surprising given the rush in post-production to meet the screening date. The pic has been criticized for being over-long, and long it is, but it is always engaging enough to stop it bogging down.

Is Australia a true reflection of Australia?

Yes. Outback cattle stations do really look like that, and those big droves really did happen; Australians do really talk like that,† (although a drover would likely use something a little more salty than ‘Crikey!’ as an expletive); there really was a man known as ‘The Cattle King’ (Sir Sidney Kidman – no relation as far as I know) who systematically bought up millions of acres of outback cattle country and became very wealthy; the Aboriginal people really do ‘sing’ the land; Darwin really was bombed in WWII (the only serious incursion of the Japanese into Australian territory‡); we do shoot kangaroos, and eat them; Aboriginal trackers did help the white police hunt Aboriginal ‘fugitives’, and Aboriginal children were, for far too many years, removed from their families and raised in ‘good Christian missions’ (including an island off the coast of the Northern Territory); the Wet does save the land every year, and the results are just as spectacular as they look in the movie.

The flavour of an archetypical and mythical Australia suffuses the film, and I’m really glad about that, even if it is mostly a cliché. It’s the same kind of myth that you find in the Wild West and the Deep South of the old-fashioned American cinema that I loved as a kid. No-one’s really attempted this in Australian cinema (with the exception of The Man From Snowy River, perhaps) and even if it’s kinda quaint as a concept, someone needed to do it, and that someone could really only have been Baz Luhrmann.

Is Australia a true reflection of Australia?

No. I can’t imagine a pub full of drinkers of any era actually singing rousing choruses of Waltzing Matilda; the real Cattle King, although famously tight-fisted, was not the villain he is painted in the film, and he died in 1935, well before the war started; as far as I know, there are not, and never have been, such tipples as ‘Poor Fella’ rum, or ‘Kanga’ lager; station bosses in the outback probably didn’t have revolvers in holsters as a general rule (I don’t say that with any authority – it’s just that rifles are much more useful than pistols out on the cattle stations); even though the Wet refreshes the land like nothing you’d believe, an outback station would hardly support an explosion of azaleas, a lawn, and – what was that – a frangipani? So Baz has been flexible with the truth in the interests of the operatic vision.

But then, the clinical Old West of Leone and Ford, the genteel South of Mitchell & Fleming and the frosty Russia of Lean are all colourful caricatures too, and we love them despite their foibles. Why not Australia?

I saw the film in a packed cinema here in Hollywood. I assume that the LA audience is relatively sophisticated and probably nearly as cynical as I am. Yet when the lights came up, they applauded the film and they applauded the director. They may not have left the cinema with an accurate historical picture of Australia but my guess is that they left with an accurate assessment of the spirit of Australia. And what more could you ask of a movie than that?


†And not at ALL like the execrable supposedly-Australian accent I heard from an actor in Frost/Nixon the other night – you’d think they could find at least one Aussie actor in Hollywood…

‡Japanese ‘mini’ submarines also made it into Sydney Harbour, quite unbelievably, but caused little damage.