May 2024

Australia (2008)

DIRECTOR: Baz Luhrmann

CAST: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, David Ngoombujarra, Ben Mendelsohn, David Gulpilil


Baz Luhrmann is an unabashed romantic and an equally unapologetic fan of big, grandiose, old-fashioned melodramas, and while Australia, Luhrmann’s simply-titled ode to his homeland, is a little more restrained (relatively speaking) than Moulin Rouge, it contains many of his hallmarks.  It’s big, bold, and brash, painted on a sweeping canvas and recalling old 1950s romantic melodramas.  Alas, a meandering overlong narrative and uneven tone leave it not having the sweeping effect it strives so hard for.  Australia looks great and is not without entertainment value, but an inability to settle into a consistent groove leaves it weighed down by its own grandiose melodrama into a rather campy sudsy romance/adventure that’s as likely to induce eye-rolling as swooning.

We open in September 1939, with the outbreak of WWII imminent.  Haughty British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from manicured English estate to rugged Australian Outbreak to take over a cattle ranch that’s been left in disarray following the sudden death of her husband.  Her early attempts to straighten things out earn the enmity of cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his lackey Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), whom Sarah kicks off her land when she learns he’s been sabotaging the operation from within.  But she also makes some allies, including boozy accountant Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), mixed-race half-Aboriginal boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), and the hunky cattle driver known only as The Drover (Hugh Jackman).  In tried-and-true romantic fashion, uptight prissy Sarah and rugged outdoorsman Drover get off to a rocky start, but join forces and of course eventually fall in love.  Eventually, they work together to break Carney’s monopoly on the local cattle business and restore Faraway Downs to relative glory, but everything is rudely interrupted when the Japanese attack Australia.

I’ll give Australia credit for at least tackling a serious and neglected issue: the so-called “stolen generations” of half-white half-Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families by the Australian government and placed in missionary schools to be trained as domestic servants for white families.  Nullah’s precarious situation—if the police become aware of his existence in Faraway Downs, he could be snatched away with no recourse—and the bonding between he and Sarah is one of the movie’s stronger elements.  Alas, his “magic man” grandfather King George (played by veteran Aborigine actor David Gulpilil) is a standard-issue Sage Old Man who in the American South would be played by Morgan Freeman and in a Native American-themed story would likely be played by Graham Greene.  He’s a one-dimensional cliche, and several moments of magical realism are awkwardly-integrated and come across a little patronizing.  Likewise, Drover’s Aborigine best friend and fellow cattle driver Magarri (David Ngoombujarra) fulfills no purpose beyond a black sidekick.  Repeated references to The Wizard of Oz, in addition to being pointless (there’s no connective tissue between the two movies), are heavy-handed.  Like any Baz Luhrmann film, Australia at least always looks picturesque, and cinematographer Mandy Walker captures plenty of sweeping shots, although there’s some oddly bad green screen and CGI going on that makes some sequences look artificial enough to pull us out of the action, including a stampede scene.  Perhaps most problematically, the movie can’t make up its mind what kind of tone it’s trying to have, whiplashing between scenes played for laughs, complete with Nicole Kidman’s cartoonish overacting in the early scenes, serious drama, Western-style adventure, and grand old romantic melodrama, eventually suddenly veering into a war movie just to cover every base, meaning it doesn’t fully succeed in any direction, try as it might.  Despite some elements like Kidman’s initially grating performance, the first half of Australia covering the back-and-forth war pitting Sarah and The Drover against Carney and Fletcher is more engaging than when it suddenly turns into Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese assault on Australia feels like it gets in the way of the ongoing story, and by the time we circle back around to wrapping up loose ends, they feel like anti-climactic afterthoughts, victims of a meandering script that drags itself to the finish line and can’t decide what it’s about.

I’m not sure if it’s the way Nicole Kidman chooses to tackle the part, or the way she’s directed by Luhrmann, or both, but especially in earlier scenes, her portrayal of Sarah is so overly mannered and affected that she turns the character into a grating caricature.  I get that Sarah is meant to be an uptight English rose way out of her depth in the Outback, but Kidman (and/or Luhrmann) goes way over-the-top driving this point home.  Mercifully for the audience, Sarah softens as the film progresses, and Kidman eventually settles down, but it doesn’t wash away the grating obnoxiousness that hamstrings Kidman’s performance in the opening act.  Hugh Jackman is a steady, reliable presence in the unchallenging role of the gruff, hunky love interest (the nameless Drover could be straight out of a romance novel) whose buff bod Luhrmann shamelessly objectifies at every opportunity (there’s a particularly egregious slow motion shot of a shirtless Jackman dumping soapy water over himself that’s basically soft-core porn), but the chemistry between he and Kidman is fitful at best.  We’re supposed to believe the odd couple of the uptight English rose and the hunky Outback adventurer gradually warm up to each other, but there’s a chill between Kidman and Jackman that never thaws, and not really buying the passion between them leaves us never getting fully swept up in their “love story”.  Like some other high-profiled failed movie romances, it’s pairing up two well-known and photogenic stars who might sound like a promising combo on paper but don’t “click” onscreen.

If the leads are underwhelming, the supporting cast is capable, although perhaps apart from Brandon Walters’ Nullah, from whose perspective the bulk of the story unfolds, everyone is relegated to playing backup to Kidman and Jackman.  Newcomer Walters is suitably cute and plucky, and veteran Aussie actors Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson are welcome presences, although neither of them gets a great deal of screentime (King Carney might be set up as the “big bad”, but this is one of those cases where the “henchman” Fletcher is the real primary villain of the story).  David Wenham proves he’s capable of twirling his mustache and crafting a deliciously detestable character, making Fletcher a hissable nemesis whom we love to hate and whose comeuppance is rooted for by the audience.  Some familiar Australian faces like Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Spence (whom some will remember from The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome) and John Jarratt (best-known to American audiences as the killer in Wolf Creek) have small roles.

If you’re an undemanding sucker for this kind of unabashedly old-fashioned “grand old romantic melodrama”, you might get swept up in the epic canvas Luhrmann paints on.  Otherwise, the sudsy, rather campy adventure onscreen might induce eye-rolling, and the formidable runtime (over two and a half hours) wears out its welcome.  Australia tries to be many things—romance, comedy, rousing adventure, war story—wrapped up in a crowd-pleasing package, but it doesn’t fully succeed at being any of them.  It’s pretty, and not without some entertainment value, but rings a little hollow.

* * 1/2