As I sat there watching a requisite kiss-in-the-rain scene between Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and the hunky Drover (Hugh Jackman), I thought of the possible SNL and Mad TV skits that will be inspired by Australia, Baz Luhrmann’s latest film — a film of such epic proportions that biting criticism and outright mockery is only inevitable. I’ve seen all three of Luhrmann’s previous features – Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! — and I love all three films dearly. Luhrmann, with his partially campy, always bold, always theatrical style of filmmaking, is most adept at transporting the viewer to another place and time, an ability that is important in the art of cinema — an art that I regard as one of escape. I knew what the critics were saying about Australia – that it is more style than substance, that it is poorly written with one-dimensional characters, that it’s the Australian Pearl Harbor – and while I accepted that there was probably some truth to these criticisms, I sat through the previews like a kid awaiting Christmas morning. I’m not going to lie. Australia is a bit messy and the editing leaves something to be desired, but these shortcomings were easily overlooked. The film successfully emulates the tone of old-fashioned epics from days long gone — epics with sweeping landscapes, rugged heroes, damsels in distress, and passionate tales of love and war. I’m not saying Australia is Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia, but it thoroughly swept me off my feet, nonetheless.
Australia takes place in 1939 as World War II is about to erupt. In its opening scene, Lady Sarah Ashley, a stiff uppercrust Brit, decides to set off for northern Australia to check on her husband’s cattle ranch. Upon arriving, she is greeted in the midst of a brawling barroom fight by the barbaric Drover, a cattle driver who is a social outcast given his close association with the Aborigines. When her husband conveniently gets murdered, Lady Ashley is convinced, by her accountant, to stay in Australia. In order to profit from the ranch, she must drive 1,500 head of cattle through hundreds of miles of land to the port city of Darwin in order to outplay cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his supporter, Fletcher (David Wenham). Against her better wishes, she enlists the help of the Drover and a group of quirky characters. As to be expected, through their constant bickering (read: foreplay), Lady Ashley and the Drover develop a passionate love affair.
I was surprised, though, to find that Kidman and Jackman are more supporting actors than leads. The real star of the film is Brandon Walters, and the central story of Australia is not about Lady Ashley and the Drover, but it is about Nullah (Walters) — the half-caste boy who develops a close friendship with Lady Ashley. The film, which opens with a statement about the “Stolen Generation,” a term used for the Aboriginal children that were taken from their parents by the Australian government and assimilated into white society during the late 1800s up to the 1960s, is not only a grand love story but also an acknowledgement of Australia’s history of racism; Australia, like 2006′s Ten Canoes, is most importantly an homage to the Aborigines.
Yes, Australia did initially feel as if it was trying to do too much — it advertises itself as a WWII movie of sorts, but the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese (which gets airtime only in the last 30 minutes or so of the film) and the war itself are only mere backdrops to the more integral stories within the film; it could easily be an epic romance as well as a coming-of-age story about a boy who is starting to realize his identity. It is part drama, part historical, part social commentary. As I mull over why the film, while it thrilled me for the most part, left me with just a tinge of dissatisfaction, it dawns on me that Australia is not meant to be seen only once. It is akin to reading Proust; you must revisit to realize its complete beauty. Australia has more than just moments. It delivers what it promises: sweeping, breathtaking scenery of down under; a story (however melodramatic and predictable) that keeps you on your toes, and endearing characters that you come to love. I definitely plan to watch the film once more before it hits the DVD shelves. If anything, there’s always the pleasure of looking at Hugh Jackman’s naked chest.