Director: Baz Luhrmann / Screenplay: Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan & Baz Luhrmann (From a story by BL) / Editing: Dody Dorn, Michael McCusker / DP: Mandy Walker / Music: David Hirschfelder
Cast: Tony Barry / Bryan Brown / David Gulpilil / Hugh Jackman / Nicole Kidman / Ben Mendelsohn / Barry Otto / Bruce Spence / Jack Thompson / Brandon Walters / David Wenham / Ursula Yovich / Bill Hunter
Maverick Australian Director Baz Luhrmann had already made his mark with the so-called ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’ (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) prior to Australia, his most ambitious project to that point.
For that initial trio of pictures, Luhrmann explored a style of film making he was to make his own; a style that incorporated three main elements. First, was the inclusion of poetry or poetical dialogue. Second, came singing (in varying degrees and styles) and third, an over-arching (dominant) theme or motif. Over the course of his career, Luhrmann has shown just how effective such techniques can be when applied correctly and, conversely, just how hard it can be to copy the style without a full understanding of ‘when to hold and when to fold’. In other words, Luhrmann acquired a clear understanding of the rules of cinema, before he set out to bend, if not break them.
For Australia, a sweeping romantic saga that climaxes with the Japanese attack on Darwin in 1942, Luhrmann goes further and embraces a discontinuity of chronology and a disregard for authenticity in the world he’s building. In his Australia, Luhrmann built a fantasy writ-large, that’s helped along by a simplistic script that reduces sequences to mere postcards in a lovingly photographed, animated slideshow (though kudos is due to DP Mandy Walker). From the moment our two leads first meet (and probably before), any cine-literate audience is going to know how things pan-out in the end. All they’re asking from Luhrmann, is that he doesn’t disappoint along the way…
Things kick off in September 1939 with a young Aboriginal boy – Nullah – being taught spear fishing by his native Grandfather, King George, played by the talismanic, enigmatic David Gulpilil: arguably the most recognisable Aboriginal screen actor of all, since his career started with Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (1971). Anyhoo, there’s an Unfortunate Incident in which a white fella in a tweedy suit is murdered in the waters of a billabong; Luhrmann’s careful to keep the killer from sight, even though we’ve just seen Mr George being handy with his spear. Methinks this is a crude bait and switch…
Cut to: a kinetic ‘talk & ride’ expository scene in which English Rose, Lady Sarah Ashley, is at home on the family seat in the bosom of the home Counties, conducting business with a flunky as she throws her lusty nag around the yard. She’s to travel out to see her husband at their cattle station ‘down-under’ (‘Cattle Station’ being a giant Aussie ranch). It’s been a millstone around her neck for years (the station AND the husband both, we gather) and Lady Sarah wants rid. This segues into a stylish ‘flying-boat-gliding-over-a-map’ sequence, shamelessly robbed from Indiana Jones (and, yes, I know Lucas & Spielberg ripped it from countless serials. Don’t write…).
So her Imperial Airways flying boat lands (or is it Qantas? I can’t recall. Oh go on then: write and tell me) and from such base metal, Luhrmann teases a few plot strands.
In the Olive-Drab corner, we have The Establishment, as represented by The Administrator (Barry Otto) and the Army’s Captain Dutton (Ben Mendelsohn giving us his best chinless-wonder). Both men are gazing out at Darwin’s harbour and ogling Lady Sarah as her launch approaches, not only because of her pure-bred, damn-it-all-she’s-from-the-mother-country good looks, but also because her cattle station – ‘Faraway Downs’ – is the ONLY station in the entire Northern Territory province NOT owned by local beef baron King Carney, played by local treasure Bryan Brown; an actor for whom it could rightly be said, that their eyes twinkle in every scene. Sad to say, that even this endearing quality can’t redeem the most ironically named character ever committed to film (I mean, really? A beef baron called Carney? What next? An agrarian mogul called Emperor Soybean?). Still, it’s part and parcel of Luhrmann’s style and we shouldn’t read too much into any of this. After all, his characters are little more than a collection of thin placeholders, that serve only to propel the plot forward.
Carney’s not alone, either, in the Blood-Red corner, as he’s joined by Mr Fletcher, his right-hand-man and heir apparent. That’d be David Wenham: an actor I’d last seen as Faramir in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but who gets to play a villainous sidekick here, instead of an honest-to-goodness hero. Writing this a few days after watching the film, I still can’t decide if it suits him.
So that’s the Olive-Drab & Blood-Red corners dealt with, so all that remains is Hugh Jackman in the pub corner; I’ll call it the Snug, for no other reason than it suits the wooden panels and corrugated tin of the place. Naturally, when first we see him, Jackman’s partaking of a consequence-free brawl over some nonsense or another and doesn’t know that his new employer is ashore… Doubtless he’d ogle at her too, if he wasn’t otherwise engaged in the Snug.
Obviously, Lady Sarah turns-up just as things have reached fever pitch and Jackman lands his coup-de-grace on a brawny, ginger, lump-of-a-man with a nonchalant casualness that tells us they’ve danced this number many, many times before. It’s all so glib, so lacking in the grit one might hope to find in something mounted with the film’s budget and ambition, but Luhrmann’s style is beginning to emerge. What we’ve got, is a kinetic teleplay and no drama: something I think both Jackman & Kidman knew when they signed-on to this picture. Their tongues are firmly in-cheeks at all times, though I think it’s Jackman who’s most comfortable with tripe such as this, having come through the hard knocks of musical theatre where treating Spam as though it were caviar, is the making of a career.
Kidman plays the stand-offish lead with the impeccable RP English accent she’d perfected in the unnerving The Others (2001). In Australia (the film, not the place), Kidman comes across as an unsubtle blend of Katherine Hepburn’s Rose from The African Queen (1951), mixed with her own priggish & stuck-up ‘oirish’ Shannon from Far and Away (1992). For all that, the result is mostly successful to this viewer, though in-common with all the players (Gulpilil excepted on account of all his dialogue being in the native tongue), the players are having to chew over a tasteless, undernourished script that can’t have given them much joy in the process.
Then comes the scene in which It All Clicked For Me. Jackman’s Drover is driving the good Lady Sarah out to her station-in-life, at a pace not much quicker than walking, on account of the amount of luggage comically piled onto his truck (together with a couple of Aboriginal stock-men for comic effect). Lady Sarah’s gazing out of the window in admiration of a kangaroo that’s pacing alongside, when a shot rings out and the ‘roo falls over. Luhrmann switches his POV to cover Kidman as she screams, almost to-camera. Her face is veiled and her eyes hidden behind a pair of ornate, over-engineered dust-goggles that together frame her face and magnify her expressive eyes. Luhrmann thus achieves a ‘heightened realism’ that he embellishes with another couple of set-ups, in which one of the ‘roo’s legs dangles unceremoniously across the windscreen, complete with a theatrical trickle of blood. Because, of course. From that moment, I began watching the film with fresh eyes.
Yes, it remains top-drawer bobbins all-round, but its heart is in the right place. The film makes no secret of the fact that it set-out to manipulate the heartstrings of its audience. It’s almost shameless in-that and, for a film pivoting towards a mass-market ‘general’ audience, it almost needs that big heart on its sleeve; to put it another way, Baz Luhrmann isn’t after Christopher Nolan’s demographic…
The various plot strands come together as you’d expect: not only does Lady Sarah NOT sell Faraway Downs, but she decides instead, to employ Drover as her factotum. Despite a deepening of their relationship, Jackman’s character never acquires a title beyond his job-description. Why? ‘Cos it would normalise him and detract from his archetypal persona. Why? Because Drover’s the link between the materialistic white man and the spiritual Aborigine: that’s why. When Lady Sarah deepens her relationship to Drover, she’s ACTUALLY deepening her bond with The Earth and loosening her hold on her strait-laced past; a transition symbolised by the loss of her husband to a ** Spoiler Alert** native spear.
Anyhoo, Drover is required to help Lady Sarah, err, drive Faraway’s herd to Darwin and rendezvous with Dutton’s cattle-boat and thus feed an army in the process: such is the clearly defined narrative I spoke of earlier. As imperatives go, I don’t think Luhrmann could’ve spelled it out any clearer, if he’d branded it into the DVD.
Along the (time-compressed) drove, there’s a stampede that leads to another Unfortunate Incident (hardly surprising, this one) and a semi-mystical romp across the Never Never, but Luhrmann gets them to Darwin and even has Lady Sarah’s motley crew driving the herd past Carney’s waiting cattle and straight-onto the ‘bloody big metal ship’ with scarcely a hint of paperwork; just more of the Director’s disregard for authenticity.
He’s not ashamed to crib from other films, either. If I was paying attention, I’m sure there’d be a laundry list of nods and winks to other pictures, but aside from cues to The Wizard of Oz (1939), – geddit? – the one that stuck for me, is this: Recently, I had the good fortune to watch William Wyler’s The Big Country (1958) for the first time and was struck during this entire droving sequence, not only by Australia’s echoes of its iconic score by Jerome Moross, but how its plot harks-back to other staples of the cowboy genre e.g. The Cowboys (1972). Merely concluding that ‘it’s all been done before’ is too glib an answer, as innovative Westerns that owe little to the past canon are being made even today. No, I think Luhrmann consciously set-out to reference these and other sources BECAUSE he didn’t want the audience to be misled by a new approach or idea. I’d argue that his story had to be this basic, in order to function as intended by his own stylistic approach to film-making. Furthermore, by tapping the genre’s key moments, he’s doling-out his story in an easily-digestible shorthand.
By this point, Lady Sarah and Drover have grown close and have formed a strange family unit, in which they’ve unofficially adopted Nullah (a cherubic-faced Brandon Walters in his debut role). However – as these things tend to go in movies set in the Forties – the winds of war are blowing. Change is a-coming and Nullah’s packed-off to an island in Darwin Bay (handily named ‘Mission Island’) on which stands a religious school and orphanage for the purposes of ‘re-educating’ and ‘normalising’ half-caste kids with one Caucasian parent; a practice widespread throughout the country until the Seventies, can you believe?
How times have changed…
To get to Luhrmann’s happy finish, I’m sure you can fill in the gaps for yourself: a task made all the easier once the Japanese attack both the island and Darwin itself, in February, 1942. Luhrmann delights in playing a game of join-the-dots and through it all, the film is doing all that I imagine he asked of it…
…and that’s the problem!
Australia is the product of an innovative Director possessed of a singular vision, honed across an award-winning trilogy. Yet with this film, it’s as if all restraints have been thrown overboard to indulge The Great Man and his vision of an idealised homeland. The result? A flabby, kitschy mess of a film, struggling to find its own identity. Had there been a grown-up at the wheel from Day #1, saying ‘NO!’ to Luhrmann’s endless diversions, the script would’ve been tighter and more focussed. In-turn, that would’ve shaped a more streamlined film, content to say nothing more than intended and let its potent imagery do the heavy lifting in other areas. As it is, Australia neither knows what it is it wants to say, or how it could ever get there if it did. The film’s as dry and arid as the Never Never…
Walkabout has already explored the rich seam of a white girl lost in the Aboriginal universe, with Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) tackling the reverse angle. The terrific Wake in Fright (1971) dealt with the problems of isolation in the outback, along with 2015’s The Dressmaker, which at least had the sense to make a comedy out of it. Michael Bay’s problematic Pearl Harbor (2001) featured a surprise Japanese attack on an unprepared target and so on… Luhrmann’s film wants to be all these at the same time.
Actually, it doesn’t. It wants to be a musical, but has no songs with which to seal the deal, only indulgent schmaltz. As it is, Australia just proved too big to digest in one sitting: for both us and Mr. Luhrmann…
In the end, the only thing you ever really own is a story. I’m just trying to live a good one.