Wednesday, November 26, 2008


It’s been a rather busy week (new job, apartment hunting, etc.), so I didn’t really get around to writing up an early reaction to Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” but in light of the reviews that have come into the fray now that it’s opened, I feel obliged to pipe up. I totally understand why this movie might not be everyone’s bag, and some might find themselves viscerally put off by it, but as a bigger-budget recreation of the classically romantic epics that thrived decades ago, it’s just about perfect. Far too much emphasis has been placed on behind-the-scenes shenanigans, such as the scrambling to finish the film, and Baz’s indecision on the ending (for the record, the ending here strikes just the right melancholy tone, neither too saccharine, nor an out-of-place downer); the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and the finished product shows no sign of any sort of rushing or rough edges. It’s unsure whether American audiences will have any desire to see a nearly three-hour film about a foreign land, starring two actors who aren’t intrinsic box office draws (my money’s on ‘no’), but it’s an entertainment unlike anything out there at the moment, and it’s another example of why the release of a new Baz movies is a major event for those with any stake in creative expression.

Opening in September 1939 with a crawl about Pearl Harbor and Australia’s “stolen generations” (mixed-race children taken away from their families by the government, in the hopes of “breeding the black out of them”), “Australia” tells the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a well-off English aristocrat who travails to Oz to visit her husband at his cattle ranch, with the suspicion he may be cheating on her. Escorted by a man known only as “The Drover” (Hugh Jackman), she discovers her husband has been killed by “a black” named King George. After firing her supposed cohort (David Wenham) who’s been in cahoots with the business opposition, Sarah and Drover must herd 2,000 cattle and deal with the rough terrain, intolerant, wealthy opposition, and eventually, the Japenese’s bombing of Dawin in 1941. The whole film is narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walter), a half-caste child who, after his mother is killed, becomes the makeshift child of Sarah and The Drover, and is our window into everything that happens.

The fact that the movie is so overstuffed with ideas and genres made it a more exciting beast to watch for me, not less. Luhrmann goes out of his way to always make everything gorgeous to look at, but certain scenes – and predictably, the scenery – are jaw-dropping in their beauty, and that’s not even including scenes that are breath-taking for other reasons (a truly stupendous cattle stampede sequence, and a gratuitously exploitative Hugh Jackman shower scene). The costumes aren’t big and flourishy, but they’re noticeably lovely, and the the seemingly everpresent score and cinematography add to the gloriously romantic nature. Once we get past the first reel, the film lacks the freneticism and strikingly original visuals of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo and Juliet,” and understandably so, but despite the levels of homage of tributes to the past, the end result is always most emphatically Baz, with his cinematic love cranked up to 11 in every shot, wallowing in his occasional excesses and a clear passion for every shot dripping off the screen. Luhrmann is intentionally evoking a long-gone style of filmmaking here, and I think the reason he succeeds is that he doesn’t play it self-conscious or winking at the camera, nor is the delivery overly earnest; the cheeky opening minutes, including Kidman’s blood-curdling shrieks over her clothes being ruined and her beatific cooing of a kangaroo right before it gets comically shot to death, establish almost immediately that this is not nearly as self-serious as the trailers seemed to indicate.

Neither Kidman or Jackman are playing the most complex characters here, but I genuinely loved both of these potentially iconic performances. As Lady Ashley, who starts off ghost white and gets suitably tan and grimy as the film wears on (though oddly, her forehead remains immovable throughout), Kidman yells, coos, cracks a whip, and is just a whole lot of fun to watch, which we haven’t seen her be in a long while. She’s been the recipient of some backlack lately, causing brilliant, complex performances like her’s in “Margot at the Wedding” to be overlooked, but this role seems to be her attempt to get back in the good graces with the mainstream public, as an enjoyable, likeable presence. Jackman is pretty much perfectly cast as The Drover, a great rugged romantic lead if their ever was won. He delivers the emotional elements when he needs to, and he’s totally convincing as the saintly, tolerant do-gooder, transcending his blatant casting as eye candy. At the 95-minute mark, the visual of him with his scruff shaven and in a suit is almost comically played as a (rather effective) money shot, and his body is repeatedly and deservedly lingered upon by Luhrmann. Wenham plays the most villainous of villains here, and you know from minute one who the bad guy is. Even though he plays him without camp or garish cartoon theatrics, I kept wondering, “Shouldn’t he be off somewhere tying a lady to the traintracks?”

The film is often very sincere and employs stylistic decisions that could certainly be dismissed as ‘corny,’ most notably, a fantastic “Wizard of Oz” motif that’s used throughout the film, and a bit of magical realism flourishes wedged in at convenient moments. People at my screening openly, obnoxiously chuckled at certain moments, and some will certainly roll their eyes frequently, but I think the flick needs to be entered into with an understanding that it doesn’t necessarily have the same goals as every other modern film. In addition, anyone with any experience with Luhrmann’s past work knows he’s not one to curb emotional or thematic scales that others might find to be ‘going too far.’ “Australia” tries to be all movies for all people, and I found that thrilling rather than tonally inconsistent. The much-ballyhooed romance doesn’t begin till the 70-minute mark, and the war/action elements kick in 30-40 minutes before the film ends. True to his old-fashioned conceit, Luhrmann tries to deliver a show that can capture the imagination of all demographics, and it makes for a terrifically enjoyable 165-minute experience that should really be seen on the biggest screen possible.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You had no problem with the fact that Nicole Kidman's face can't move or show expression?

9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicole Kidman attempting to get back in the public's good graces? lol, I think you may be a tad confused considering that her next upcoming films is about a transexual and another one is about a bisexual. In between that she is being wooed by Lars Von Trier to appear in another film of his. And considering that she has been working on this film for the better part of 4 years before this apparent backlash, I highly doubt that what people think of her is what dragged her to the role. Baz Luhrmann is the only reason.

What did Jonathan Glazer say about her? "I don't think Nicole Kidman is interested in being liked or known".

You may want to read up on the lady before thinking she is about to PLEAD her case. Pleading with audiences is something actors who want to be liked do.

12:56 PM  

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