Early in Baz Luhrmann's Australia, one of the main characters says of his country: "this land has a strange power." And indeed, if one surveys the landscape of films about Australia, many of them (The Last Wave, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Proposition) seem to express this sentiment: Australia is a nation of strange, captivating, haunting power. In his epic film about his native country, Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) affirms and exaggerates this Australian mythos, to spectacular effect. Indeed, his impressively rendered film has a "strange power" of its own.
This is a film of great ambition and artistic audacity. That the title is simply Australia tips us off to the intentions of Luhrmann: not necessarily to make the definitive film about the complicated country/continent, but to provide an over-the-top, grandiose, slightly-irreverent-but-ultimately-sincere explosion of cinema that hearkens back to the golden age of Hollywood epics.
Fittingly set in the late 1930s/early '40s (the Hollywood era it most recalls), as WWII encroaches on its northern coast, Australia has a relatively simple story for a film of such scope (and formidable length). It follows the prim, parasol-toting aristocrat, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), as she comes to Australia from England to check in on her husband, who owns and runs the Faraway Downs cattle ranch in Northern Australia. Ashley finds her husband dead under suspicious circumstances, his ranch under threat of seizure by a rival cattle company. She enlists the help of a dashing, rugged cattle driver named Drover (Hugh Jackman), as well as the aboriginal helpers on the ranch, to keep Faraway Downs afloat and competitive in the wartime beef market. She forges a special connection with a young "half-caste" (half aborigine, half white) orphan boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who is also the film's cheeky narrator.
Before too long, melodramatic intrigue, sweeping romance, and bravura action ensues. Lady Ashley and Drover hate each other at first, but gradually fall in love (in a familiar, pleasing, "Indiana and Marion" sort of way). Meanwhile, a villain emergesNeil Fletcher (the excellent David Wenham, who played Faramir in the Lord of the Rings films)who is determined to ruin Lady Ashley, particularly because she is friendly to the natives and harbors little "half-caste" children like Nullah. At this segregated time in Australia's history, whites were the landowners, blacks (aborigines) were the help, and "half-castes" (usually the product of white men having their way with aborigine women) were the least desirable of all. These "unfortunate" byproducts of illicit interracial relationships were highly stigmatized and best kept out of sight. In the 1930s and '40s, mixed-race children were plucked from their indigenous communities and shipped to church missions or state institutions in efforts to re-educate them. These children became known as the "Stolen Generations."
On one level, Australia is a self-conscious examination of race. It's Nullah's tale of being an outcast, an in-between child searching for a home and a people: "Me half-caste, me 'creamy,' me belong to no one," he says. Indeed, while Nullah finds a temporary home and family with Lady Ashley and Drover, he also feels the pull of his indigenous heritage. His aboriginal grandfather (David Gulpilil), who is referred to as King George or simply "Magic Man," is always standing in the background, or up on a mountain surveying the landscape, singing or chanting in deep, magical ways. Nullah feels and understands things from King George that his white friends Ashley and Drover cannot. He's truly torn between two worlds.
In the end, though, that is what Australia isa nation of conflicting cultures, outcasts, and displacement. "Home" and "identity" were not slam-dunk concepts for the nation to realize. It took work, just as it does in the filmfor Lady Ashley, Drover, and Nullah. They are a diverse trio, bound together by circumstance and a nascent patriotism, but mostly love. For them, "home" is a hopea future that might be lived together in harmony, one day, when the peace comes. It won't come through any official channels, and it won't come through the church (Christian clergy are largely portrayed as villains in the film, with one exception), but rather it will come from an organic and determined spirit of equality and freedom.
This sense of future-hope and sought-after liberation parlays into one of Australia's most crucial themes: dreams. Indeed, the magic-realist aesthetic of the film sometimes feels more dreamlike than real. Otherworldly landscapes and colors, anachronistic flourishes, and pop culture accoutrements define the world of the film, as in Lurhmann's other ambitious films, Moulin Rouge! and Romeo+Juliet. For its part, Australia features a brilliant, perfectly incorporated Wizard of Oz motif that works historically (that film released in 1939, when Australia is set) and thematically (the idea of dreaming, hoping, and finding that "no place like home" stasis). Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" becomes the film's anthem, referenced directly and subtly in the lovely score by David Hirschfelder. A scene early in the film when Lady Ashley labors to tell the Wizard of Oz story to young Nullah is one of the film's best moments. Her rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is hilariously unenthusiastic, yet Nullah is captivated by what he calls "the dreaming song." He can certainly relate to Dorothy's quest to find her true home, as can Lady Ashley, in her own way.
As Lady Ashley, Kidman delivers a typically stunning performance. Though to a large degree the lead characters are meant to be Hollywood archetypes (Jackman the hunky cowboy renegade, Kidman his romantic foil), Kidman manages to inject some nuance into her character. At the start of the film, Ashley is a ghostly white, tightly wound, satin-gloved shrinking violet. She's lonely and confused about what it is she wants in Australia. But as the film goes on, the land and horses and adventure become her. She gets tanned, less kempt, and her "poppycock!" elitism gives way to "crikey!" confidence and barroom bravado (compare her opening, fish-out-of-water saloon scene with one later in the film, when she drinks with the rowdy boys). Though Nullah is the heart of the film (and brilliantly portrayed by Walters), and Jackman the good-hearted brawn, Kidman's Ashley is the force majeurethe goddess in geisha garb who turns heads, dispenses with convention, and upsets the establishment.
Kidman is clearly conjuring the strong heroines of 40s-era Hollywoodparticularly someone like Katharine Hepburnwhich is part and parcel of the film's overall focus on the glory days of the movies. Indeed, the dream motif, the Wizard of Oz influences, the glamorous costumes and showy set pieces all come together in the fact that, above all, Australia is an homage to cinema itself. The film's epic scale, with horses and explosions and romantic kissing in the rain, summons the best spirits of the Hollywood studio systemthe "dream factory" itself. What Moulin Rouge! did with late twentieth century pop music, Australia does with Hollywood historical epics. It's an amalgam of such films as Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The African Queen, Out of Africa, even Titanic or Far & Away (which also starred Kidman). These are films of pure, dazzling escapismvibrant, showy spectacles that are less about reality in the strict sense as reality in the idealized, dramatically lit and well-costumed sense.
Australia might strike some as a clichéd, overblown, sappy, messy blend of reality and artifice (i.e., the important commentary on Australia's racial issues mixed with campy dialogue and subpar CGI cow stampedes). But I found it to be a pleasurable, invigorating mess. Like most of the great Hollywood epics, Australia isn't perfect. It's not high artbut cinema never had that heritage. It was always a medium for the masses, and came of age in a depression, when the masses needed it most. Australia is not a film for Australians as much as it is for the world, and it isn't a history lesson. It's an ode to a place (exotic to some, familiar to others), yes, but more than that, Australia is state of mind: wonderment, grandeur, beauty, love, escape, hope.
I think it's a film we need right now.Discussion starters
- Does Christianity come across fairly in the film? What are the positive and negative portrayals of clergy?
- Some of the scenes with King George seem to evoke supernatural spiritualism and otherworldly powers. Do you think this is interpreted literally, or metaphorically?
- What do you think of the film's treatment of race? Is it helpful? Overly simplistic? Are white people unduly demonized?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Australia is rated PG-13, mostly for violence (war scenes, bombings, a stampede trampling, a spearing). There is very little language, though one instance of the f-word. There is also one brief scene of sex between the romantic leads, though it is tastefully shot and there is no nudity. For the most part, this is a family-friendly film (for teens and up, that is) with a positive, hopeful message and a lot of fun action and delicate romance.
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