Phil on Film Index

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review - Australia

Epic in scope but pitifully small-minded, Baz Luhrmann's Australia wants to cast the same romantic spell over viewers that films like Gone With the Wind or Titanic have in the past, but the film it most readily recalls is Michael Bay's Pearl Harbour. Like Bay, Luhrmann is a director who obsesses over stunning images but who has no idea how to assemble those images in a way that's coherent or satisfying. He simply hurls everything he's got at the screen with a feverish intensity, swamping his film with glossy visuals, but his pictures have no depth beyond what we see on the screen. They are exhaustingly shallow, particularly when Luhrmann takes over two and a half hours to tell his story, as he does with this ridiculously overcooked national epic.

Australia's biggest failing is the way Luhrmann squeezes in enough content for three or four films while barely managing to generate enough drama for one. At its core, the film is a very old-fashioned love story, with two people from different classes and opposite sides of the globe falling for each other, as seismic historical events gradually creep up behind them. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) is the prim, uptight Englishwoman who travels down under to take over her late husband's ranch Faraway Downs. The man who will eventually be her lover is a cattle driver know only as Drover (Hugh Jackman), and oddly we never learn his real name, even when the pair are living together as de facto man and wife ("Drover" she yells from the porch, as if summoning the family dog). Of course, their initial encounters are tetchy, with her thinking that he's nothing more than a brute, and him tiring of her snotty attitude, but the pair bond when Faraway Downs is threatened by evil cattle barons Bryan Brown and David Wenham, and after 90 minutes or so of silly, predictable shenanigans, they live happily ever after.

Except, they don't, because the film has more than an hour still to run, and Luhrmann chooses to fill that time with the Japanese attack on Darwin, in February of 1942. Outside of Australia, this assault – during which the Japanese dropped more bombs than they did at Pearl Harbour two months earlier – is not widely known, so one might be tempted to commend the director for choosing to bring the story to a wider audience, but it's another massive layer the picture doesn't need. Australia is already stuffed to the brim with Sarah and Drover's romance, the fight to save Faraway Downs, a long-winded cattle drive, the fate of a half-aborigine boy called Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), and half-a-dozen references to The Wizard of Oz; so this final twist, which comes encumbered by a couple of false endings, just ensures Australia outstays its welcome.

Luhrmann seems to have convinced himself that his film will be considered a grand romantic epic if it's big enough and long enough, but in all of his sweeping, soaring shots of the Australian outback, there is no imagination or artfulness, it's just cliché after cliché after cliché. The film is attractive in places but never impressive, and even that visual impact is tempered by some of the shoddiest CGI I've ever seen in a major studio release like this, with the dreadful cattle stampede being the most obvious example, but hardly the only one. That sequence is just one of many in Australia which runs longer than it needs to, and with the conclusion to each and every scene being signposted well in advance, the audience is continually leaping ahead of the action, and then waiting impatiently for Baz's lumbering behemoth to catch up with us.

This director just doesn't know the meaning of the word restraint. He doesn't seem to understand that a film needs to rise and fall, that the quiet moments are every bit as vital – if not more so – than the flashy showstoppers, and even the performances are pushed to broad excesses. Such an approach is bad news for Kidman, who provided a calming, soothing effect at the heart of Luhrmann's manic musical Moulin Rouge!, but whose role in the first half-hour of this picture is to shriek and flap her arms in an unbecoming manner. She gets better as her character loosens up, and she occasionally manages to eke something special out of the material (like her attempt to sing Over the Rainbow to Nullah), but she never seems entirely comfortable in the role. She is certainly outshone by Jackman, whose background in musical theatre perhaps makes him a better fit for the film's campy tone, but what can we expect any actors to do with characters as sketchily written as these? Both Sarah and Drover develop exactly as you would expect them to (she becomes passionate and sexy, he shows his sensitive side), with the alterations occurring seemingly overnight, and that's as deep as the characterisations go. Beyond the two stars, the film is filled with one-dimensional caricatures – the moustache-twirling villains (Brown and Wenham), the comedy drunk (Jack Thompson), the surly Russian (Jacek Koman), and the most suspect stereotype of all, a head-waggling Chinaman named Sing Song (Wah Yuen).

The presence of Sing Song is particularly noteworthy because Australia is a film with racial harmony foremost in its mind. In dealing with the story of Nullah, Luhrmann attempts to tackle the issue of Australia's infamous "lost generation", but the director is so determined to treat his aboriginal characters with sufficient respect, he has ended up giving us figures who practically glow with benevolence and wisdom. So much emphasis is placed upon their spiritual qualities and their oneness with the natural world, the film risks turning them all into the kind of "magical negro" that Hollywood films have so often been guilty of featuring. At least young Brandon Walters brings a touch of humanity and openness to his guileless turn, giving by far the film's most effective performance, and his charmingly naïve narration occasionally manages to cut through the bombast of Luhrmann's filmmaking style. Australia is cheesy, bloated, fatuous and frequently very boring, but Walters' Nullah hints at something deeper, and when he heads into the wilderness to begin his "walkabout", one suspects he's about to embark on a journey that's far more interesting than anything this nonsensical film has to offer.