Australia (Australia/United States, 2008)
Australia is big and bold and brash - although one wouldn't expect less from director Baz Luhrmann, whose vocabulary doesn't include words like "restrained" and "low-key." A would-be epic on a grand, David Lean-inspired scale, Australia falls far short of intentions and expectations. (One wonders whether rumored studio meddling has anything to do with this.) The problems are numerous - a meandering screenplay, a too-long running time, an uneven tone, and a lack of real emotional punch. It looks great, but the same comment can be made about Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, which shares more than a passing resemblance. Both are fictional melodramas that play out against an historical backdrop where the invented characters and circumstances are dwarfed into insignificance by the real events that establish the setting.
The movie opens in 1939 and is told from the point-of-view of the half-caste boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), who becomes a central figure in the story that unfolds. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has arrived from England to manage a cattle ranch that has fallen into disarray following the death of her husband. Her early attempts to set things right are thwarted at every turn, and she earns the enmity of King Carney (Bryan Brown), who is trying to corner the local beef market, and Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), whom she dismisses from his position on the ranch. When Nullah's mother drowns in an accident, he is orphaned and it falls upon Sarah to act as his guardian lest he be taken by the Law. Meanwhile, Sarah finds aid with the ranch from Drover (Hugh Jackman), who helps her drive the cattle across vast stretches of land to where they can be sold to the army. The first segment of Australia concentrates on these early events and the local politics of who comes out on top in the cattle business. The film's second half focuses on Australia's preparations for war after Pearl Harbor is attacked. Mixed into all of this is a tepid love story between Sarah and Drover and the unconventional "family" they set up with Nullah filling the role of the son.
The semi-playful tone adopted by Luhrmann during some of the film's early scenes is at odds with the serious nature of what's transpiring and it ultimately undermines the ability of the characters to attain a semblance of three-dimensionality. Drover is meant to be one of those great staples of epic dramas: the reluctant hero who exudes machismo but has a sensitive side underneath. During many of his early scenes, however, he's more like Crocodile Dundee. Sarah is equally clichéd: the stuck-up English rose who finds her true mettle in the Outback. She's no Scarlett O'Hara; he's no Rhett Butler; and too often, we don't give a damn.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Australia: the characters and their relationships are forced and artificial. If the film had the low aspirations of being a romantic comedy, the manner in which Sarah and Drover are introduced and paired might work, but this is borderline-insulting for a motion picture of this scope. The writing doesn't match the canvas upon which the portrait is being painted. And if the characters and their romance, which lies at the emotional core of Australia, reeks of artifice, how can the movie as a whole be entirely successful? It can't and it isn't. We watch the film and are not swept away because there's something missing.
Australia seeks to address the so-called "stolen generations" of half-white/half-Aboriginal children who were re-located by the government. Nullah's precarious situation and the way Sarah fights for him is one of the film's more successful aspects. Less effective is the incorporation of Nullah's magic man grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil), into the story. He fulfills the role of the Sage Old Man who sits outside of the conflict and helps out when he can. If this film was set in the pre-Civil War American South, Morgan Freeman would play the role. If it was set in the Old U.S. West, it would be Graham Green. The role is another cliché and the magic realism that stems from it feels more like a cheat than a natural appendage of a well-constructed screenplay. When magic averts a cattle stampede over the edge of a cliff, there's not enough elegance in the filmmaking to camouflage the deus ex machina flavor of the moment. And the constant references to The Wizard of Oz are inelegant and obvious.
Luhrmann has likened the character of Sarah to Katharine Hepburn's persona in The African Queen, but few similarities made the transition from his imagination to the screen. Nicole Kidman lacks Hepburn's force of personality. Sarah comes across as a poser, not a genuine person. She softens as the film progresses and, by the midpoint, Kidman is providing a capable performance. But she can't wash away her work from the first two reels which recalls a similarly unpalatable portrayal in Far and Away. In fact, many of Australia's tonal flaws are duplications of those in Ron Howard's earlier feature, which tried with limited success to combine lightweight drama, romance, and adventure against a grand historical backdrop. Meanwhile, Hugh Jackman is supposed to be dashing, but he's actually rather dull. He's a good actor, but he lacks the raw sex appeal necessary to burn up the screen. At best, his chemistry with Kidman is fitful. If the two stars are underwhelming, however, there are some bright spots to be found in the supporting roles. Newcomer Brandon Walters is suitably perky and veteran Bryan Brown is note-perfect as King Carney. David Wenham has what it takes to twirl the mustache and become a detestable character whose comeuppance is demanded by the audience.
Visual flourishes are Luhrmann's trademarks, and he has employed them in his three previous international successes: Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge. There's no arguing that Australia looks good. The Japanese attack provides a few moments of shock and awe, and there's never a time when you don't believe the world you're seeing, even if the characters are on the insubstantial side. Such a gorgeous playground deserves to be the setting for a story of greater power and emotional resonance than the one occupying it. Lurhmann has proven with Moulin Rouge that he's an unapologetic romantic who can pluck the heartstrings, but the magic doesn't translate here. The big romantic climax is so obligatory that it loses most of its effectiveness. We should want to leap to our feet and cheer at this moment. Instead, it's hard to generate enough enthusiasm to do more than shrug.
Australia's release date indicates that Fox wants it to be a player in the 2009 Oscar race. While there may be some technical award nominations waiting in the wings, it's hard to see this movie being taken seriously in any of the main categories. It's an epic pretender, not an epic contender.
Australia (Australia/United States, 2008)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Bryan Brown, Brandon Walters, David Wenham
Screenplay: Stuart Beattie and Baz Luhrmann & Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan
Cinematography: Mandy Walker
Music: David Hirschfelder
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox