Artificially regarded by many as the film that will make or break the Australian film industry once and for all, Baz Luhrmann’s wannabe-epic Australia is actually about as Australian as baseball, or McDonald’s. Pretentious and overbearing, this extraordinarily expensive piece of fluff will undoubtedly warm the cockles of overseas audiences, but one wonders whether the millions spent on marketing will bear fruit. Either way, it seems unlikely Australia will be remembered as much more than feel-good schmaltz.
When Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) learns of her husband’s squandering of their fortune on a cattle station in the Northern Territory, she hitches her skirts and travels downunder to set things straight. Upon arriving in Darwin, she is to be met by The Drover (Hugh Jackman),who is tasked with escorting her to Faraway Downs. She turns up just as the world is gearing up for the start of World War II, although the entrance of Japan and (finally) the United States to the war is still some two years away. Under the corrupt management of Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), Faraway Downs has fallen into disrepair, while Lady Ashley will find Lord Ashley murdered and much of their stock missing. Her decision whether to try to save the station or cut her losses will have longstanding ramifications for them all.
The list of things wrong with this film is far longer than the corresponding list of its positive attributes, meaning the positive can probably be covered first. Jackman’s abs are impressive; Nullah is played with great charm by Brandon Walters; and the final 20 minutes or so are engaging in spite of everything that comes before – maybe due to the gradually developing awareness that this butt-numbingly long film must surely soon end.
The problems start with the overtly political nature of the film. Luhrmann clearly still has an axe to grind about the Stolen Generations, and he chooses to emphasise his points by portraying all white Australians as racist savages who would condemn mixed-race children to an island they know will be the first attacked by Japanese fighter planes. The truth of the Stolen Generations history was evidently not enough for Luhrmann and his team, as they saw fit to add in their own. Which is fine in and of itself, but when trussed up with title cards at the film’s beginning and end attaching the sense that this is all true and accepted history, Australia becomes more like self-flagellating propaganda than light entertainment. Some may feel the liberties Luhrmann takes insignificant, but one need only read the reviews of foreign film critics to see these plot points accepted as fact. (A prominent example can be found here.)
Alongside Luhrmann’s arrogance in assuming he can speak to all of a nation’s past (even the film’s title is presumptuous… who the fuck does Luhrmann think he is to entitle this drippy little love story Australia?), he seems also to have been confused about just what the film is. Commencing with traditional Western-style bar-room brawls, and intermittently attempting Epic, Romance, War film and travel infomercial, Australia ends up succeeding as none.
Kidman bears her frozen features throughout with stoicism, while Jackman is given the thankless task of being the romantic hero who clearly wishes to be otherwise. Their failure to develop any believable chemistry means the ‘romance’ component of the film falls flat. Luhrmann shoots both to emphasise their appeal, however, with one particular shot of Jackman bathing potentially laughable were it not so self-aware.
Luhrmann’s script attempts to evoke a long-forgotten dialect and comes across only as clichéd. The popularity of the late Steve Irwin with an international audience seems to have had an obvious impact, as the exclamation ‘Crikey!’ is used far more than is natural. Colourful aphorisms like ‘shut your damper-hole’ will probably be heard for the first time by many Australian viewers.
The film does provide some support to the film industry in the wider sense, giving employment to most every Australian actor or actress to have graced the screen. This may be somewhat of an exaggeration, although it is hard to escape the sense of anticipation when a new character is introduced – who will this actor be? Jack Thompson gets short-changed by a relatively shallow role, while Ben Mendelsohn is given very little to work with. Frankly, the majority of the supporting characters are nothing more than two-dimensional caricatures with an obvious expository purpose.
Australia does manage to maintain some interest throughout its obscenely long running time of 165 minutes, and its ending achieves an emotional impact that is as surprising as it is unlooked for. Audiences unfamiliar with this country and its recent history may enjoy the scenery and the story Baz has chosen to set within it, however it seems likely that local filmgoers will stay away in droves.Rating: