Status: In theaters (opened 11/26/08)
Directed By: Baz Luhrmann
Written By: Stuart Beattie and Baz Luhrmann & Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan
Cinematographer: Mandy Walker
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Brandon Walters
It’s virtually impossible to describe a movie like Australia as anything other than epic: It’s a sprawling story, focusing on individual relationships while setting them against a backdrop of world events (hinging around the 1942 bombing of Darwin), depicting in equal parts fantastical adventures and history lessons. It touches upon a myriad of themes—racism, genocide, war, greed, pride, coming of age, and of course love—and does so in a variety of ways, all of which could serve as textbook examples of the unique power of cinema as an art form: musical cues both subtle and overt, visual callbacks, contrasting spatial representations, a careful handle on the passage of time that allows for a very personal story to be told in very universal terms. Not every film that qualifies as “epic” is also “great,” however (Richard Kelly’s ambitious yet flawed Southland Tales comes to mind), but Australia does not disappoint, and while it’s not perfect, it does not miss on any of the main points it’s going for.
At its most basic level, this is the story of an English aristocrat named Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who comes to pre-WWII northern Australia to attend to her murdered husband’s beef ranch. There she meets and eventually falls in love with a cattle driver-for-hire known only as the Drover (Hugh Jackman). He is cut from the same cloth as Eastwood‘s Man With No Name, mysterious, anonymous, and a tougher-than-tough man’s man. What he is not, however, is heartless: the Drover, we learn, is one of the few white men at the time to not only tolerate blacks but to work with and befriend them (and we later find that it goes even beyond that, but I don’t want to spoil anything). The love story of Lady Ashley and the Drover is the overarching plotline of the larger tale.
Perhaps even more critical to every aspect of this film, though, is the character of Nullah, an aboriginal boy who narrates the story while serving as the fulcrum upon which all of its machinations hinge. The movie wouldn’t work if not for this character, and young Brandon Walters is simply amazing in the role: he’s adorable, emotive, charming, and most of all completely believable. This last part is certainly helped—especially to audiences outside of Australia—by the complete uniqueness of the character, a native Australian half-breed (derisively referred to as a “Creamy”) with an enchanting speech pattern and accent, not to mention an exotic passion for music. Nullah is the son of one of the maids on Lady Ashley’s ranch—called, cutely, Faraway Downs—and was fathered by one of the multiple heels of the story, played by David Wenham. That character becomes employed by King Carney (Bryan Brown), the cattle baron of northern Australia, who wishes to buy Faraway Downs to complete his monopoly and secure an exclusive supply deal with the Australian military, as their involvement in World War II is becoming inevitable.
A movie like this doesn’t lend itself well to plot synopses, though, as I’m sure I’ve made abundantly clear in the preceding paragraphs. I hope I’ve at least begun to convey the fact that it is complex; that its characters’ stories intertwine in intricate ways; that it is a classically-styled tale of love on the frontier set against a backdrop of impending war. From this basis, Baz Luhrmann tells a story in his wholly unique way, filled with drama and music and magic and emotion. Australia shares many of these characteristics with Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, though they are run through a filter of sorts, toning down the assault-on-the-senses absurdity and favoring a more graceful touch at every turn. The similarities are surely there, though: the story told is as much of a specific time and place as it is of the characters who inhabit them (Paris in the late 1890s to early 1900s, Darwin in the late 1930s to early 1940s); it tethers itself to a particular “home base” location (the nightclub with the red windmill in the earlier film, equally Faraway Downs and The Territory Hotel in the recent one); its personal story is related in part by the universality of popular culture (“The Sound of Music” and “All You Need is Love” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Elton John’s “Your Song” previously; here “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and The Wizard of Oz and the spiritual nature songs of the indigenous people of Australia). Most impressively, despite being so full of all of this, it is all in perfect balance, all contributing to elevate the movie as a whole to a rare level of not just enjoyable storytelling but expressive art as well.
The most obvious complaint about this film to anticipate is of its length; at nearly 3 hours its runtime matches the ambitious nature of its plots and themes and style, for sure, but it is also more than some audiences would prefer to sit through. This isn’t helped by the fact that there is a point about two-thirds of the way through the movie that feels like it could be the end, where the larger plotlines remain unresolved but there is a lull in the action and a calm before the storm that is the picture’s final hour that would be mildly satisfying were it the conclusion—there’s even a summarizing voiceover from Nullah and a picaresque sunset over Faraway Downs before a fade to black… And if that’s where it left off, this would be a modest movie of modest scope and modest achievement, good but not great (probably 2½ or 3 stars on my scale). It is the final hour that really elevates this movie, though, and it does so by escalating the stakes on every front. The definitions of “good guys” and “bad guys” become blurred, and the goals of the major characters become refactored as the Japanese bombers arrive, all while the action and excitement and suspense are elevated accordingly.
Every aspect of Australia‘s presentation is not just thoroughly impressive but thoroughly enjoyable as well. There are consistently solid performances from every member of the cast, particularly the two leads and most notably the aforementioned young boy. Seemingly every shot captures both the immense sprawl of the vast locations and the personal emotions of the characters at the same time. The scope of the story effortlessly expands and contracts in ways that always feel natural, keeping our focus on the intimate stories being told while simultaneously relating them to the larger events that are occurring. And there’s just the right amount of old-fashioned movie magic blended in, making this an epic that I think will stand the test of time.