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Messy Australia still a trip worth taking

by Glen Baity

Every film buffmaintains a list of least favorite directors. For years, Baz Luhrmannhas been a fixture near the top of mine. That’s some feat for a guy whohas 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. Myreasons are legion, but here’s the short list: the labored hipness, thepointless anachronism, the frantic editing and the in-your-faceoveracting. I have no idea what Luhrmann is like as a person — he’s areal sweetheart, for all I know — but watching his movies is like beingtrapped in a conversation with an over-caffeinated film student whoconsiders himself far, far more clever than he really is. I admit myloathing borders on the irrational, but some flicks just rub you thewrong way. I tell you this only to convey my surprise and pleasure atseeing the director calm his famously erratic camera and try somethingnew in Australia. Whilethe stitching isn’t perfect, the new suit fits him well: Luhrmann’slove of camp, which proved ruinous in his previous films, finds a goodoutlet in this old Hollywood revival. Australiaisn’t Gone with the Wind, butit yearns to be, and it’s entertaining enough to watch it try. The epiccenters on Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an Englishwoman whosehusband’s dealings in the Australian cattle industry draw her DownUnder near the beginning of World War II. When Mr. Ashley dies undermysterious circumstances, Sarah must take the reins at his ranch,Faraway Downs, and fend off her power-hungry competitors in the beeftrade.

To dothat, she’ll enlist the help of the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a freelancecattleman who lives for the wide-open Outback. The film follows themismatched pair from Sarah’s arrival in Australiathrough the height of World War II, which sees the destruction of thenorthern city of Darwin. Between these two landmarks, the two will fallin love, to the surprise of absolutely no one, and become an unusualsort of family with adopted son Nullah (Brandon Walters), a mixed-race12-year-old with his own, more interesting problems. I liked Australia, butLuhrmann still has quirks that drive me nuts. This is his second filmwith Kidman, and he once again brings out the worst in her. Kidman’sstrength has never been her antic comedy chops, but Luhrmann,especially in Australia’s firsthalf, forces her to mug for the camera, flouncing and pouting like adebutante. It’s an embarrassing display, one that thankfully ends wellbefore the movie does. You’ll have plenty of time to warm up to LadyAshley in the film’s second half, though she never becomes the ScarlettO’Hara she’s clearly modeled after. But at its worst, herinterminable journey from society priss to salty broad is just painful.Not that Kidman is alone here. Almost all of these characters areunmemorable because they’re just archetypes, from Jackman’s scruffyloner to David Wenham’s dastardly villain. It’s hard to really careabout them, and because the main narrative follows such a familiartrajectory, their long-forecast Happily Ever After never seems indoubt, even in the midst of the apocalyptic bombing that ravagesDarwin. But what the film lacks in suspense is made up in sheer grandeur. Australiaisbeautifully shot, and Luhrmann, for the first time, gives his sceneryroom to breathe, in the process deftly capturing the mystery and allurein Oz’s vast red center. He also gives his audience something to talkabout by confronting the country’s bloody racial history. Australia’s colonization was disastrous for the country’s native population, and Australiaexamines the scars imperialism left on the nation’s people of all races. There’sa major plot thread that involves the Stolen Generations, a term thatrefers to mixed-race Aboriginal children who were taken from theirfamilies 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. WhileI’ve been quite critical of Luhrmann’s directorial techniques in thepast, I’m prepared to give credit where due: The way he stages Australiaisoften downright poetic. My favorite moment in the film comes during thebombing of Darwin. King George, an Aboriginal shaman who watches overour main characters, stands in the middle of the bombardment, surveyingthe explosions ripping apart a country he no longer recognizes. Thelook on his face is one of indescribable sadness, and it ties togetherthe film’s multiple threads in a powerful way. That’s why, despite itsfaults, I consider Australiaasuccess. It might concern itself too much with a pretty dull lovestory, but it also opens up a fascinating part of the world that hasn’treally been shown in this light before. Even when it’s bland, the filmoffers something new to discover, and reveals a new side to a directorI’d long written off.

To comment on this story, e-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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