By Willie Krischke — November 29, 2008
Baz Luhrmann has made a name for himself with over the top, often bizarrely theatrical movies full of glitz and glamour that also manage to be somewhat emotionally resonant and memorable. It’s hard to compare “Romeo + Juliet” or “Moulin Rouge!” to other movies, and really, even to each other.And yet, to understand what a “Baz Luhrmann movie” is, you need only to watch both of them. They are big and bold and bright and somehow work amazingly well within their own strange universe.
So it’s a little surprising that Luhrmann’s latest film, “Australia” has so little in common with his other films – and so much in common with other films. It’s already been called the “Gone With the Wind” for Australia and a “Titanic” in the desert. I would add an outback “Atonement” and an Australian “Whale Rider.”True, it might be as big and beautiful as Lurhmann’s other outings, but in much more conventional, box office pleasing ways. It’s like Baz is trying to scratch out his own corner of the Spielberg/Cameron turf.
Set before and during World War II, “Australia” concerns a haughty British aristocrat (Nicole Kidman, in the role she was born to play. Are we sure this woman wasn’t secretly raised by the Royal Family and then sent out into the world to fight for truth, justice, and propriety in all circumstances?) whose husband is slowly bankrupting the home estate by pouring money into a cattle ranch in faraway Australia. She flies down under to force him to sell the ranch, but she arrives to find him recently murdered, and she quickly uncovers a nefarious plot to bankrupt her and force her to sell the land to the local cattle baron (Bryan Brown) for much less than it’s worth.
Foiling the plot depends entirely on successfully driving what remains of her cattle to the town of Darwin, where an Army contractor waits for someone/anyone to offer him a better price than the cattle baron. Kidman needs a team. She enlists the help of Hugh Jackman and his team of Aborigine cowboys, as well as the female servants at the station (also Aborigines,) the alcoholic accountant, and a biracial boy (Brandon Walters) who has been hiding at the station from the police, who intend to ship him off to a boarding school to “breed the black out of him.”
The story is narrated by this young boy, whose name is Nullah, in true Australian pidgin. His grandfather (David Gulpili) is a medicine man, and always seems to be watching from a nearby high place, be it mountain or water tower. Luhrmann does an impressive job of incorporating Aborigine mysticism and magic while keeping an agnostic distance. Several events take place that have two possible explanations, one spiritual and one secular, and the movie doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other.The viewer is allowed to see what they want to see, to believe what they want to believe.
“Australia” is three hours long, but starts to lose its narrative steam after two. After the cattle drive it must change gears and tell another story, this one about estrangement and war, and it never really gathers any momentum. One thing happens after another, but it all degenerates into slow motion, closeups, and swooping shots of carnage and war. These are certainly the notes an epic movie is supposed to hit, and end with, but the second part feels too disconnected from the first, so “Australia” doesn’t really feel like it’s earned them, in spite of all the good story that’s gone before.
I saw “Australia” on the day after Thanksgiving, and took my whole (extended) family to see it with me. Despite widely varying movie tastes, everyone enjoyed the movie(well, everyone except by punk kid brother, who thought it would’ve been better if everyone had died at the end. I should’ve sent him to see “Twilight.”) It’s pretty hard to find something that interests everyone, offends no one, and isn’t a giant bore, but “Australia” fits the bill. It may not quite measure up to Spielberg, but this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for it all the same.
- if you like big, bold and beautiful
- if you like long, lush and lavish
- if you’re looking for something the whole family (age 12+) will enjoy. Mine did.
- if you’re expecting the normal Baz Luhrmann extravagance and visual splendour.
- if you can’t sit through three hours of anything.