Baz Luhrmann has a great deal to say about his native Australia, and he has very ambitiously attempted to say it all in one film. It’s a bold choice more admirable in the intention than in the execution. He has essentially grafted two separate films together, one an over-the-top homage to adventure films from the 1930s and 40s that verged on camp even in their own time, the other a more straightforward tale of wartime love amid the trials and tribulations of a couple at an emotional impasse. Holding the two elements together is a harsh social history of Australia’s Lost Generations, an official government policy that tore mixed-race children from their aboriginal mothers and sent them to boarding schools away from their families and culture.
Yes, it’s a great deal to get through, and even in the almost three hours Luhrmann takes, it fails to gain any coherent traction. The other thread that ties the film together, however, the camera’s true and abiding love for Hugh Jackman’s incomparable face and physique, succeeds with aplomb.
The whole is narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walters), the cuddly and precocious mixed-race boy who speaks in patois and who will figure prominently in the courtship of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and Drover (Jackman). She has come to Australia in late 1939 to retrieve her husband from the failing cattle station that he refuses to sell despite the family’s need for ready cash. He’s the man Lord Ashley has sent to retrieve his wife from Darwin, the closest city where she can arrive by airplane. Naturally, he is brawny and brawly and because there is a politically correct agenda t address, he is indignant about the way the British are treating the aborigines. Drover’s best mate is. When we meet him, Drover is brawling in the local saloon over a racial slight aimed at his aborigine best mate. Lady Sarah, a prim example of an upper-crust Brit with too much luggage and attitude to match, discovers him in the midst of that luggage, or rather the ruins of it immediately post-brawl. It’s called meeting cute with a chaser of hate at first sight. Things do not improve as they trek across the outback, she in safari garb as stiff and starchy as her personality, he with a growing disdain that you just know is going to turn into something more. Naturally it does, but not right away and rightly so. Kidman’s character at this point is little more than a cartoon caricature of ineffectual British snobbery, Jackman’s one of a hunky cowboy. When she arrives at the station, Faraway Downs, it is to discover that her husband is dead, the books have been cooked, and she has a very small window of opportunity to save her property by getting her cattle to market before the boat bound for England sails.
Thus begins the cattle drive along with a dash of mea culpa about the treatment of the aborigines and a heaping helping of a classic horse opera, complete with an evil cattle baron (Brian Brown), his equally evil henchman (David Wenham), and a stampede. The amalgam of annoying and poetic never does come to a détente, but the relentless and exuberant cheesiness of the latter combined with the breathtaking vistas of the Australian outback finally beat the audience into submission of a sort. The camera work has a Busby Berkley grace, originality, and a dazzle that make things look less clichéd than they are. Then there is the way that same camera lingers lovingly over Jackman, not just in the pivotal moment when Lady Sarah spies him soaping up and rinsing down on the trail, a moment of wonder and splendor in Luhrmann’s hands, but throughout the film as it rests on Jackmnan’s beautifully expressive face. The pained loner coming to terms with his need for a home and a family is told less with the predictable dialogue than in the palpable pain Jackman shows lurking just beneath Drover’s stalwart façade, a heart that still hasn’t learned not to wince. Kidman and her character are there strictly for Jackman to have something to react to. Pretty much can be said of the rest of the characters and the film as a whole.
As for the second part of the film, it, too, follows the formulas devised over a half-century ago. Misunderstandings, acrimonious partings, and the terrible finality of Darwin bombed by the Japanese in 1941 blend with the film’s running motif of THE WIZARD OF OZ set up as a Western reflection of Nullah’s mystical abilities inherited from his shaman grandfather, an old man who seems to be in the right place at the right time no matter what. That ability is, however, less incredible than the one that has an Aussie trampled by 1,500 head of cattle and still able to impart a vital piece of evidence before expiring. Wordily. Then again, maybe they really do grow them that tough Down Under.
AUSTRALIA, like all of Luhrmann’s films, is a vibrant and visceral visual feast. For all its faults, and there are plenty, it has the uncanny ability to manipulate its audience into involuntary oohs and ahhs even while provoking it by using every hoary plot device imaginable. Conceived and played out in an idiom of hyperreality, it slips the bonds of the more conventional simulacrum of true life and bounds sloppily, greedily, recklessly into the land where high adventure and true romance are the only thing that matter.