Set in northern Australia before World War II, an English aristocrat who inherits a sprawling ranch, reluctantly pacts with a stock-man in order to protect her new property from a takeover plot. As the pair drive 2,000 head of cattle over unforgiving landscape, they experience the bombing of Darwin by Japanese forces firsthand.
Baz Luhrmann grew up in country NSW, and traversed this wide-brown land to research his new film, so it figures that he of all people, knows that we Australians a hard bunch to please. We lop our poppies off at the knees if we think they’re growing too tall.
So he must have known what he was in for when he boldly set out to create 'an adventure as epic as the land in which its story unfolds", as the press notes suggest.
The publicity machine promises nothing less than: 'Casablanca-meets-South-Pacific-meets-Oklahoma-meets-The African Queen-meets-Titanic-meets-[any other sweeping Hollywood epic you care to mention]’. With that level of hype it was bound to disappoint on some level.
It isn’t entirely Luhrmann’s fault that the film falls short of unrealistic expectations. But in his quest to create an epic masterpiece, he channels the aforementioned screen classics (and Xavier Herbert’s famed novel Capricornia), and he does it so self-consciously that it captures none of their spark. The laboured references to The Wizard of Oz are clumsy and only remind the viewer that Australia, much like the Tin Man, lacks the heart that would make it whole.
Luhrmann’s flair for the theatrical worked a treat with his 'Red Curtain trilogy’ – Strictly Ballroom, Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge. The artificial staging of those films worked because the director set them in unrealistic, self-contained environments. However, when you take that same penchant for cliché and hyperbole and try to frame it in some sort of historical, real-world context, as Luhrmann attempts to with Australia, you run into problems.
Luhrmann tops and tails the film with historical footnotes about Australia’s complicated record of race relations, beginning with a note about the shameful separatist policies and ending with a reference to the landmark apology. The result is a big-screen crib note to Australian history for international audiences.
Australia unashamedly seeks to bridge the gap between black and white, and uses the mixed-race character of Nullah (Brandon Walters) as the conduit. The device works to varying degrees, but Luhrmann trowels on the sentiment and in the end, this parable about acceptance is reduced to an eye-rolling, bodice-ripping melodrama, riddled with cliché.
For a story that focuses on feuding beef barons, Australia features an awful lot of ham. The bulk of it comes courtesy of David Wenham as the dastardly evildoer of the piece, Neil Fletcher. As the scheming station manager hell-bent on revenge, he’s just one moustache twirl short of Snidely Whiplash. But is this the actor’s fault, or the director who famously encourages his actors to play it to the hilt?
At the very least, they give it their all, and for all of Australia’s shortcomings, the acting's not the worst of them. Newcomer Brandon Walters is the clear standout – the camera loves him as the precocious 'half-caste' Nullah who has been kept at arm’s length by both black and white for all of his life.
Nicole Kidman does surprisingly well in the role of Lady Sarah Ashley, the prissy English lass who comes to Northern Territory to check up on her husband and finds herself widowed and in charge of a cattle station that’s on the brink of bankruptcy. The role plays to her 'icy' strengths and it mostly works, provided you can withstand her first 40 mins of screen time, in which she huffs and puffs and generally blusters about as the wide-eyed, toffy-nosed import. These scenes are tolerable only insofar as you know she’s headed for an epiphany of the outback kind; one that will cause her to drop the façade and settle into her new life as 'Mrs Boss’ on the cattle station, Faraway Downs.
The counterpoint to her arrogance is Hugh Jackman’s laidback man of the land; he’s the hardened cattle driver of no fixed address who refuses to be pinned down by anyone – least of all some up-herself pommy blow-in. His distant, transient nature is so closely tied to his profession that he bears no name other than simply, the Drover. He’s the archetypal bushie – a rough diamond with a heart of gold, with a "Crikey"-count to rival even the late Steve Irwin.
From the moment Lady Sarah sets foot off the boat and eyeballs the rough, buff, tanned specimen whose street brawl cracks her suitcases and causes her smalls to spill out onto Darwin’s red earth, you know these two are destined for some "wrongside business" (to borrow the local parlance). Even so, Luhrmann draws out the sexual tension as long as he can, even after a first kiss that springs from a mixture of grief, adrenaline and a couple of generous helpings of the Bazmark-branded Poor Man’s Rum.
Nic and Hugh’s romance is but one aspect of the story, mercifully, given their cliché-ridden courtship could hardly sustain a film that runs bum-numbingly close to three hours.
The rest of the cast is a who’s-who of Australian cinema; collectively, they provide the necessary stoicism, shadiness and savagery, as called for by the script. A quick snapshot: Bryan Brown is the rival cattle king; Jack Thomson is the drunken accountant cooking the books; Essie Davis is the innocent heiress unaware of her father's and husband’s dirty dealings; and David Gulpilil is the 'noble savage’ King George, who observes (and orchestrates) much of the action from high on a hilltop.
Action sequences drive the film forward and several plot developments are skimmed over, as the key protagonists make their way to Darwin in time to see the Japanese fighter pilots litter the skyline.
Luhrmann reportedly wrote six endings to the film (and shot three) and you can see where the threads for multiple endings could take hold, though finding six plausible outcomes might be stretching it a bit... Suffice it to say, danger lurks at every turn for the three leads.
On a technical level, Mandy Walker ACS’s cinematography is stunning (though it’s pretty hard to make the Australian outback look bad on film), and the sweeping shots of the sweeping plains are hard to beat, for example, in a montage of the changing seasons.
Luhrmann is a director renowned for his mastery of all visual elements, which makes it all the more disappointing that in the print screened for media, the film’s overall 'look’ was inconsistent and CGI shots were fairly obvious to spot. Could this be an intentional nod to old Hollywood, or a result of the rumoured deadline pressures that allegedly had Luhrmann living in a caravan on the Fox lot and delivering the film piecemeal to his studio overlords, one reel at a time? Whatever the reasons, the effect is distracting and, when teamed with occasional continuity clangers (e.g.: a cattle stampede that inexplicably switches from first light to broad daylight"¦), cracks begin to surface in the artifice that Luhrmann has taken great pains to create. And that's a real shame.
Given the weight of expectation and the hefty price tag, I’d like to deliver a more ringing endorsement than 'it’s not awful". It desperately wants to be magnificent but emulating films of a bygone era isn’t enough to create a modern classic. The hallmark of a classic is surely a good story, well told. Australia has the makings of a good old-fashioned love story and a ripping yarn, but it is difficult to feel moved by a film that is so artificial.