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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.04.08





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A Long, Not-So-Strange Trip

Baz Luhrmann drags us Down Under

by molly templeton

AUSTRALIA: Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan. Cinematography, Mandy Walker. Editing, Dody Dorn and Michael McCuskter. Music, David Hirschfelder. Starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, David Gulpilil and David Ngoombujarra. 20th Century Fox, 2008. PG13. 165 minutes.

Australia is a nearly absurd spectacle, a mishmash of old-fashioned epic filmmaking, modern sensibilities and overwrought, unconvincing romance. Director Baz Luhrmann’s touchstones range from Ben-Hur to Titanic — the bigger, the better — with The Wizard of Oz thrown in for thematic, musical and punny good measure. Luhrmann’s heart is in the right place, but the film is a mess. A big, shiny, overlong mess that dreams of being something bigger, something better.

Nicole Kidman in Australia

There’s obviously much more to Australia than there is in Australia, but Luhrmann’s got an image he wants to put forth, and he’s damn well going to do it up as best he can: Here is your uptight Englishwoman, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), so stiff-backed she can barely walk, off to Australia to round up her possibly unfaithful husband; here is the Drover (Hugh Jackman), the rough-hewn, muscle-bound “trusted man” the husband has sent to fetch her (and her prissy, matching luggage) from the northern city of Darwin; here is the liquid-eyed, perceptive, maybe sort of magical, half-Aboriginal child, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who narrates the film, and who witnesses the murder that sets certain things in motion and ties everyone together in this sprawling, theme-laden tangle. There are cattle to drive, a nasty cattle baron to face off with and oh, yes: the racial prejudices of the time, not to mention the looming threat of WWII. And did I mention the romance?

Still, it wouldn’t be a Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) movie were it not overstuffed, painted in broad strokes and bright colors, beautiful from time to time and dizzying at others. Here, the beauty often comes from the landscape, from swooping shots of the Australian outback or the breathtaking power of dozens of horses galloping across the dusty ground or the sheer shock of a dusty yard transformed by seasonal rains. Luhrmann’s best scenes all seem to take place at a certain elevation: the appearance of Japanese planes is gorgeous and scary; an Aboriginal tribesman known as King George (David Gulpilil) hovers over the landscape atop water towers and jagged rocks.

But one of Australia’s problems is just that: King George and the other Aboriginal characters stand outside the world of the white leads even as the film makes it quite clear that bad guys are racist and good guys believe that Aboriginal people should be treated just like everyone else. Luhrmann is clearly respectful of the Aboriginal people, but he can’t seem to figure out how to give us context, how to bring Aboriginal culture more fully into the already too-long film, how to present the equality the film clearly believes is right. It’s a strange crossing of wires: It’s a rare and welcome thing to see these stories in a mainstream film at all — including a piece of the story of the Stolen Generations, the children who were forcefully taken from Aboriginal families and raised in institutions — yet the telling falters under the sheer weight of the clunky, leaden romance between Lady Ashley and the Drover. 

By the end — no, not that end; the other end (the film has three or four) — Australia becomes such a forceful blend of genre, style and history that you spend more time aware of what Luhrmann’s aiming for than you do simply sinking into what he’s got on offer. Here is a Western; here is a war film; here is a romance. Even the film’s depiction of Australia feels like more shiny surface than beating heart: Here is your mythical Outback, like your mythical West. Maybe something like this happened here. Maybe we’re just projecting. 

Australia is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.