Australia (2008)


Australia is mad director Baz Luhrmann’s would-be magnum opus, his paean to his homeland and to classic Hollywood — a down-under Gone with the Wind with accents from The Wizard of Oz. Set in 1939 (the same year that those two films were released), Australia sets out to tell the story of the Japanese bombing of the city of Darwin and the “stolen generation” of mixed-race “creamies” (illegitimate children of white fathers and aboriginal women) who were taken from their mothers in the bush and placed in state or church missions. Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable — and Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart — it’s a sprawling Western with a sprawling cattle drive, a war-torn romance, a send-up of British colonialism and an ode to aboriginal culture and spirituality.

Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown, David Wenham. 20th Century Fox.

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Caveat Spectator

Some action and wartime violence; a nonmarital relationship with a brief bedroom scene (nothing explicit); mild innuendo and sensuality; vague Aboriginal mysticism; an obscene phrase.

Is that too much of a mouthful, even for a 165-minute movie? What do you think? Still, Luhrmann gamely chews for all he’s worth. Luhrmann’s strong suit has always been boldness rather than subtlety; his take-no-prisoners approach worked brilliantly in Strictly Ballroom, but as I see it he went off the rails with Moulin Rouge! and hasn’t managed to right himself since.

Australia is Luhrmann’s most personal picture, and his most haphazard. Much like Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, it’s a film that has been long labored over, and the artist’s love of the material is clear, but the inspiration has been lost along the way and the characters reduced to cartoony types. Jackman’s character is actually called “the Drover” — not just in the credits, like “the guy” and “the girl” in Once, but literally by the other characters: “They just call him the Drover,” a local introduces him to the veddy-proper-but-spunky Lady Ashley (Kidman). You tell me, ladies: Would you trust a man who doesn’t have a proper name?

The Catholic Church’s historical complicity in the stolen generation (for which the Australian bishops apologized in 1998) is fairly treated the film, and is nicely balanced by an idealistic priest who places himself in harm’s way to rescue endangered children from attacking Japanese. Adorable young Brandon Walters is charming as a half-caste “creamy,” and indigenous dancer David Gulpilil is suitably mystical and remote as the boy's grandfather, King George.

Messy and undisciplined, Australia isn’t without its pleasures. There is a certain epic magnificence to its best scenes, and the parts, or some of them, are sometimes more than the whole. If you love both Gone With the Wind and Moulin Rouge!, you just might enjoy it.

As a filmmaker, Luhrmann lives and dies by the adage celebrated in Strictly Ballroom: “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” There’s nothing timid or half-hearted about Luhrmann’s work, that’s for sure. But fearlessness, photogenic actors and great scenery will only get you so far.