directed by Baz Lurhmann
starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman
Australia/USA 2008; screened 29 November 2008 at AMC Theatres
I admit that I haven’t read many reviews of Australia in toto, but the snippets I have read and the general critical feeling indicates that most critics didn’t think it was very good. At all. And in fact, in many ways, they’re right. Australia is a mess. But it’s a gorgeous, sloppy, enjoyable mess.
Australia is not the great epic of the Australian people, or indeed, a great epic at all. It is not a particularly innovative piece of filmmaking. It is not indicative of a specifically Australian filmmaking sensibility, nor a very strong example of Baz Lurhmann’s own flamboyant filmmaking style. There’s a bit of a sense of failed ambition hanging about the film, because you can tell Lurhmann wanted at least some of those things to be true, especially the first one.
An English noblewoman travels to Australia to get her husband to sell his plantation there and return to England. Instead, her husband is killed and she stays on to run the plantation with the help of an Australian cowboy known only as Drover (because that’s what he is, a cattle drover). Meanwhile, she takes a young aboriginal boy under her protection. Lurhmann’s attempt to bring together a uniquely Australian family pulled from each of Australia’s roots (English, aboriginal, and outback drifters) is obvious to an extreme, which is part of why it fails as a national epic – it’s too calculated.
In addition to the overdetermined theme, the film suffers from tonal inconsistency. It can’t decide whether it’s a farce (the first half-hour is full of Luhrmann-esque quick close-ups and exaggerated facial expressions, as if he wanted to remind us that he’s the one who directed Moulin Rouge before settling into a much more staid style for the rest of the film), western, romance, war, family drama, elegy, social rights message picture, travel brochure or national epic. The western and war sections, especially, are so divisively separated that Lurhmann might have been better off making two films instead of one.
But even after that laundry list of defects, and I could think of more if I wanted to, I can’t get past how much I plain enjoyed watching the film, and I would go see it again in a heartbeat. It’s old-fashioned classic filmmaking in the Hollywood tradition. I hate to keep bringing up David Bordwell’s The Way Hollywood Tells It all the time as if it’s the only film theory book I’ve ever read, but it’s applicable here again – elements in the narrative are carefully placed so as to lead the audience to expect certain things to happen, and they do. So yes, it’s predictable, but satisfyingly so. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman play their characters as larger-than-life mythic figures rather than real people, because that’s what they are. Kidman especially works in her role not because she turns in an outstanding acting performance (she’s done that far better in other films), but because she channels old Hollywood star quality so well when she lets herself.
I’ll grant you I’m a sucker for westerns, and I definitely loved that part the best – there’s nothing revisionist about it, and the first half of the film could easily have been made during the golden age of westerns, full of gorgeous vistas, sweeping music and laconic hero figures. Then, suddenly, World War II starts, and it’s almost a whole different movie, which I didn’t like quite as much as the western, though it’s not particularly bad.
So Australia is a mess, yes, trying to pack too many varied things into one film that never quite meshed into a cohesive whole. But it was a very comfortable-feeling mess, and I unabashedly loved watching it. As a compromise between knowing it’s nowhere near objectively good and my subjective love for it, I give it an Above Average.
[Weird side note – according to IMDb, the aspect ratio is 2.35:1, but I would’ve sworn I saw it in 1.85:1. Anyone else see it in the narrower ratio, or was I just on crack? I even made a note about it in my notebook at the time, that it seemed odd to shoot an epic in 1.85:1.]