By Robert Patrick
Australia, in a sweeping narrative not unlike Hollywood’s archetypical epics of old, interweaves deep tones of romance with equal part action. The movie’s mastermind, Baz Luhrmann, probably channeled the late director David Lean – famous for such monolithic films as Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge over the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago – in his quest to recreate the type of dramatic narrative that tinsel town of the 1950s and 60s had.
The first part of the movie, taking place prior to world war 2, introduces us to Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a stately English woman married to a wealthy cattle baron. The couple’s property, based in the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Australian outback, is under attack by the far from valorous King Carney – the sole proprietor of the continent’s largest cattle business. Why Carney would want to purchase Lady Sarah Ashley’s cattle ranch is beyond me, especially since the business isn’t generating much revenue in the first place. I suppose the movie needed an antagonist ruthless enough not to care. Later in the film, when Lady Sarah Ashley’s husband is killed in backcountry of Australia, she promptly packs her finest hats and disembarks to the land down under to resume her husband’s business. Because of her ignorance to the country, Lady Sarah Ashley, needing of a guide, recruits the ornery Drover (Hugh Jackman) to assist her on the arduous journey.
Drover, in all of his unkempt manliness, permeates tactless personality traits. The cattle driver knows nothing but the land and the horse beneath him. If someone sneers at him, Drover will likely be the first one to fisticuffs; he is an alpha male in a world dominated by sweat, ill-temperament, and shot glasses full of whiskey. Jackman, who is shirtless or throwing punches in most of his screen time, seems completely at ease in this role. Lady Sarah Ashley, as you can probably imagine, is the antithesis of Drover. She is used to being pampered by high society, and refuses to adhere to the laws of a new land. In fact, when Lady Sarah Ashley arrives in Australia she is met with disappointment and terror. During her first meeting with Drover, wild dogs tear into her briefcase full of braziers. Of course, in a typical reaction, she bursts into hysteria; it is an odd couple template that takes the movie over. Kidman shrewdly stomps about, slightly overacting. And Jackman says syrupy quips, causing Kidman to act further confused. The first part of the film, dealing with the introductory scenes of Drover and Lady Sarah Ashley, move along sprightly. Baz Luhrmann, in filming each scene with an unexpected light-heartedness, gives the film a comedic narrative. Even after both characters become engaged in a cattle war with King Carney, the whimsical direction of the script keeps the story buoyant and without too much seriousness. A side plot – one of the many in the movie – involves a young Aboriginal child named Nullah (Brandon Walters). Stolen from his country, and stripped of his heritage, young Nullah is forced to reside with his mother at the cattle farm of Lady Sarah Ashley. Once her royalty is made aware of this, Lady Sarah Ashley attempts to help the young boy – and in the process becomes his sole protector.
This entire first half, unable to comprehend itself as one movie, still manages to fit another hour and a half worth of additional subplots into the release in part two. The second half of Australia is, without contention, much less playful. As World War 2 progresses, we watch as Japanese pilots strafe the residence of Darwin with bombs. All of the characters, each possessing their own concerns, attempt to deal with the tribulations of their personal life, while still struggling through the ruins of an assailed Australia. While building a dramatic arc, Luhrmann’s various subplots almost evolve into separate movies – neither one of them seamless in transition.
Despite the lack of cognate fluidity in the movie, the greatest triumph of Luhrmann’s long, winding opus is that of Brandon Walters’ acting. Giving life to Nullah, the young Aboriginal boy, we’re witness to the struggles of the lost generation: an entire lot of young children stolen from their families, only to be enslaved by cattle drivers and business vultures. David Gulpilil, a native Aboriginal, who has been in such classic Aussie films as 1971’s Walkabout and 1977’s The Last Wave, even makes a significant contribution to Australia, in what seems like a sentimental revisiting to his acting career.
A plethora of moviegoers will inevitably not want to spend three hours in a movie theatre, but if they do, they will engage themselves within the archaic magic of a film that still thrives on the gears of classic romance and forgotten storytelling. Sometimes, in flashes of heightened brilliance, this movie really shines. In others, hampered by Nicole Kidman’s incessant need to huff, squeal and coo her way out of scenes, it becomes bothersome. Baz Luhrmann, in a recent interview, admitted that he spent over 150 million dollars on this movie so that people in a recession could forget about their problems. I guess it works. There are explosions, elongated kisses, cute little kids. With all of that grandeur, you could never call this movie a minimalist production, by any means. But it is nice to see a movie jump off the screen at you, no matter how many continuity flaws it may have. I just wish someone would figure out how to market this film.
All in all, David Lean would be proud.