Messy Australia still a trip worth taking

by Glen Baity

Messy Australia still a trip worth taking

Every film buff maintains a list of least favorite directors. For years, Baz Luhrmann has been a fixture near the top of mine. That’s some feat for a guy who has made only four movies since 1992, one of which (Strictly Ballroom) I haven’t seen. In my defense, I feel like I have a strong case based solely on Romeo Juliet and Moulin Rouge. I dislike many movies, but I only hate a few. I hate these movies. My reasons are legion, but here’s the short list: the labored hipness, the pointless anachronism, the frantic editing and the in-your-face overacting. I have no idea what Luhrmann is like as a person — he’s a real sweetheart, for all I know — but watching his movies is like being trapped in a conversation with an over-caffeinated film student who considers himself far, far more clever than he really is. I admit my loathing borders on the irrational, but some flicks just rub you the wrong way. I tell you this only to convey my surprise and pleasure at seeing the director calm his famously erratic camera and try something new in Australia. While the stitching isn’t perfect, the new suit fits him well: Luhrmann’s love of camp, which proved ruinous in his previous films, finds a good outlet in this old Hollywood revival. Australia isn’t Gone with the Wind, but it yearns to be, and it’s entertaining enough to watch it try. The epic centers on Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an Englishwoman whose husband’s dealings in the Australian cattle industry draw her Down Under near the beginning of World War II. When Mr. Ashley dies under mysterious circumstances, Sarah must take the reins at his ranch, Faraway Downs, and fend off her power-hungry competitors in the beef trade.

To do that, she’ll enlist the help of the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a freelance cattleman who lives for the wide-open Outback. The film follows the mismatched pair from Sarah’s arrival in Australia through the height of World War II, which sees the destruction of the northern city of Darwin. Between these two landmarks, the two will fall in love, to the surprise of absolutely no one, and become an unusual sort of family with adopted son Nullah (Brandon Walters), a mixed-race 12-year-old with his own, more interesting problems. I liked Australia, but Luhrmann still has quirks that drive me nuts. This is his second film with Kidman, and he once again brings out the worst in her. Kidman’s strength has never been her antic comedy chops, but Luhrmann, especially in Australia’s first half, forces her to mug for the camera, flouncing and pouting like a debutante. It’s an embarrassing display, one that thankfully ends well before the movie does. You’ll have plenty of time to warm up to Lady Ashley in the film’s second half, though she never becomes the Scarlett O’Hara she’s clearly modeled after. But at its worst, her interminable journey from society priss to salty broad is just painful. Not that Kidman is alone here. Almost all of these characters are unmemorable because they’re just archetypes, from Jackman’s scruffy loner to David Wenham’s dastardly villain. It’s hard to really care about them, and because the main narrative follows such a familiar trajectory, their long-forecast Happily Ever After never seems in doubt, even in the midst of the apocalyptic bombing that ravages Darwin. But what the film lacks in suspense is made up in sheer grandeur. Australia is beautifully shot, and Luhrmann, for the first time, gives his scenery room to breathe, in the process deftly capturing the mystery and allure in Oz’s vast red center. He also gives his audience something to talk about by confronting the country’s bloody racial history. Australia’s colonization was disastrous for the country’s native population, and Australia examines the scars imperialism left on the nation’s people of all races. There’s a major plot thread that involves the Stolen Generations, a term that refers to mixed-race Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and sent to camps for training in service to white society. It’s a shameful mark on Australia’s history, and one that has often gone unacknowledged in the popular narrative of the country’s founding. While I’ve been quite critical of Luhrmann’s directorial techniques in the past, I’m prepared to give credit where due: The way he stages Australia is often downright poetic. My favorite moment in the film comes during the bombing of Darwin. King George, an Aboriginal shaman who watches over our main characters, stands in the middle of the bombardment, surveying the explosions ripping apart a country he no longer recognizes. The look on his face is one of indescribable sadness, and it ties together the film’s multiple threads in a powerful way. That’s why, despite its faults, I consider Australia a success. It might concern itself too much with a pretty dull love story, but it also opens up a fascinating part of the world that hasn’t really been shown in this light before. Even when it’s bland, the film offers something new to discover, and reveals a new side to a director I’d long written off.

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