CAPTION: In Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, cinematography and Kidman rule.
The Wizard of Aussie-land Conjures Something Shockingly Good
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA
And now it’s time for a story about our friend Baz. Mr. Luhrmann holds the dubious honor of directing the only film I have ever walked out on in the theater. After fifteen minutes of the insipid kitsch of his Moulin Rouge! my friends and I bolted. About a year later I watched the film in its entirety to give it a fair chance and declared it the worst film of all time. His nauseating, hyper-realized, quick-cut style of editing and boiling down of every story arc to its rotten simplistic core was the most obnoxious trend in film-making I could ever imagine. Well, Baz went home to Australia to think long and hard about where he was headed as a director. After a seven year hiatus, he conjured up a huge budget, invited his muse Nicole Kidman for the ride, whipped up every conceivable cliché from epic movie history into a slow boil and spewed the sprawling tale of his homeland onto the screen in Australia.
Australia has an opening fifteen minutes that are cringe-worthy. It appeared Baz learned nothing from his walkabout and was delivering a mega-storm of comical kitsch that almost had me heading for the exit. But there was something oddly magical about this unwieldy dust storm of muddled Australian history, Aboriginal mysticism, and Outback adventure that prompted me to stick with the film and see if Baz had learned any new tricks. Much to my surprise, Mr. Luhrmann did, and it’s not just the slow-mo cam or the sweeping shots of the Australian Northern Territory that Luhrmann warmed to. It turns out when your heart is in the right place, clichés can work and become dramatically engaging. Luhrmann not only attempts to create his own modern version of Gone With the Wind with the cattle ranch at Faraway Downs substituting for the plantation at Tara, but he also desires to heal the racial wounds of his entire nation. He’s a man madly in love with movies and recklessly drawn to his homeland’s history. His handling of Australia’s part in WWII and the racial strife between Australia’s Aborigines and the English settlers may strike some as condescending and trite, but those would be the people missing the point of the film.
At its core, like Tarsem’s The Fall, this Australia is about creating a good story and the mythos of film. Whereas The Fall presented us dazzling images we had never seen before, Australia presents us a dizzying array of epic filmdom’s greatest hits. There’s a rousing cliffhanging cattle stampede, a romantic kiss in the rain, a not so subtle Wizard of Oz motif, a Japanese bombing of Darwin, a daring rescue of orphans, and a weepy reunion in the wake of tragedy. There’s comedy, thrills, drama, romance, and a message. No stone is left unturned on this vast continent, and the most wonderful thing about it is if you can forgive the opening fifteen minutes of dreck, the remaining two and half hours work splendidly as grand-scale entertainment.
Ignore the critics and leave your prejudices at the door. The plot of the film is irrelevant as any story arc is merely an excuse for Baz Luhrmann to unleash another sumptuous image from his dreams of Australia’s past. And though the characters are drawn in broad strokes, know that the performances are uniformly finely wrought, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman complimenting each other nicely and proving to be especially adept acting through the wildly shifting tones. By framing the story through the narration of Nullah, a half-caste Aborigine boy played sympathetically by Brandon Walters, Luhrmann lets the audience know that this film is about telling your own story and dreaming big dreams. In doing so he re-imagines the history of his Australia as a fable and with the help of a little movie magic adds a relevant layer to the mythos of film. Crickey, that sounds like a pretty good story to me.
Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:
Your soiree of thoughts makes me want to see this even more than I already want to! Thanks, Dave.
I do what I can, Jen! It’s definitely a film to see on the biggest screen possible. –DHS
I saw it last week as well David, and am preparing a review. I actually agree with you right down the line here; it’s not a great film, but it’s hardly the abomination the critics would have you think it is. Beautifully-written piece, but I am on the MOULIN ROUGE bandwagon.
Sam, I am still shocked I liked it as much as I did considering how much I have loathed Luhrmann in the past. Big cheesy epics certainly have their place, though, if done right, and the Baztastic Australia was done right in my book. –DHS
Glad to see Baz won you over this time. I’m a huge Baz fan from “Strictly Ballroom” on. Can’t disagree that he cuts fast and does a lot of over the top stuff, but the excess can be fun if in the right frame of mind.
I loved “Australia” but I thought it was really two separate movies squashed together: the cattle drive and then Darwin. The bridge between the two was pure exposition like the first 15 minutes and left much to be desired. But I still loved the movie.
Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, but I always secretly liked Strictly Ballroom because it was a silly, fun indie-movie. It’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge that were just too over-the-top for me. Australia was also over-the-top, but in a more refined and classical way. I guess it’s all a matter of taste. –DHS
David, I saw over at Publishers Marketplace Deals that Baz has bought the film rights to Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” My first thought was, “My god, what took Baz so long to find that one!” I’ve seen the novel adapted to the stage and it was quite effective. I think it’d make a good film. And Baz will put his original fingers all over it….(smile)
I was no fan of the Jack Clayton 1974 film version of the book, so a remake isn’t that bad of an idea. It certainly would be intriguing…though I fear Baz would focus too much on the “excess”–I wonder now who might be cast if the project ever takes off. –DHS
I found your review fascinating because I was no “Moulin Rouge!” fan either. I didn’t hate it as much as you, but the choppy editing was an assault on the senses.
Because I’ve never loved Baz’s style, I was prepared to hate “Australia,” yet I came out of the theater in love with the film. As you point out, the movie is a veritable cliche factory, but that seems intentional. It is also a loving homage to the epic cinema of years past, and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.
Glad to see somebody else sees the world the way I do … at least some of the time.
Forrest, well, you know what they say…great minds think alike. –DHS
Baz Luhrmann is a hack.
Millions on expensive sets, and all you see is extreme closeups of Nicole and Jackman. Kidman can’t act her way out of a paper bag.
Luhrmann substitutes camera trickery for dialog. Australia is like a movie that’s not yet completed!
And the funniest part – “Australia” is revealed to be just an extension of “The Wizard of Oz” – Australia is really an extension of America!
Robert, while there is plenty of evidence to support your theory on Baz, I must defend Nicole Kidman. Granted, not every role has been a good fit for her, but her perfomances in The Others and Birth are astounding. I also found Australia to be very American…or very Hollywood to be exact. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in my mind. –DHS
I was prepared not to like this movie, based on the reviews. Yet I was also prepared to like it, if it lived up to its potential. Turns out I LOVE this movie! I think it is absolutely SPLENDID in cinematography, acting, direction, screenplay, etc. While I concur with some reviewers that the aboriginal characters aren’t fleshed-out enough as characters, this (while lamentable) can be at least partially forgiven, given the scope of the film and time constraints (the public won’t stand for much more than 150-180 minutes, and Baz split the difference).
Let’s look at what Baz set-out to do, and what he and the cast and crew accomplished. An homage both to Australia itself (albeit in a somewhat stylized and archetypal way, to be expected of Baz anyway), as well as to the great Hollywood epic romance/adventure films of the past 80 years or so. Baz provides us with a stylized, yet reasonably accurate, portrait of his beloved Australia in Early WW II era, replete with music, mannerisms, etc. What’s not to love (especially for a Texan who has a special affection for Aussies, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal). There are echoes of *Gone With the Wind*, *Casablanca*, *Red River*, and *Out of Africa* (as well as a few others). And the *Wizard of Oz* theme (not just musical theme, mind you) was superbly integrated into this film. Baz set-out to do a bang-up epic combining Romance, “Western” Adventure, War, and with a sprawlig cast of characters, that, while to some extent are archetypes, we can more-than-manage to relate with and care about. The pathos and poignancy are never cloying or contrived, but flow right along with the plot. And, while, as with any work, one can divide this one into two Acts, the writing and editing make them near-seamless, with the bridge-narrative-montage acceptable and not boring or plodding.
Baz also set-out to tell an emotionally-enthralling story (albeit fictional) about the so-called “Stolen Generations” of part-Aboriginal children, from approx. 1900 to 1970, who were “removed” from their parental custody and language group(s) and ensconced in government and/or religiously-sponsored “camps” for assimilation into mainstream white society primarily as servants of one sort or another. Now, while this was handled a bit better in Phillip Noyce’s excellent *Rabbit-Proof Fence* (2002) (pulled-off by Noyce handily and beautifully on but a fraction of Baz’s budget), this theme is indeed driven home here as well, and is, of course, integral to the film and the characters’ development.
And with all due respect to Russell Crowe and the late great (GREAT) Heath Ledger, Hugh Jackman was perfectly cast and directed as the Drover, and no one could’ve pulled-off the role better than he. And while I, too, consider Kidman’s performances over the last 20 years or so to be uneven (at best), some great, some hardly so, I think one can attribute this as much to material and direction as to her own acting ability(s). Here in *Australia*, she is very nearly perfect, thanks in part, no doubt, to a close collaberation with Baz.
Plus, it’s always good to see Aussie stalwarts Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson chew a bit of scenery. And David Wenham is not just a Snidely Whiplash cliche, but obviously a ruthless psychopath who gets his comeuppance in the end, delivered by none-other than David Gulpilil, the doyen of Aboriginal actors. He was, as should be expected, perfect as King George. And it also good to see indigenous actor David Ngoombujarra do such a good job as Drover’s best mate and brother-in-law, Magarri. And while Ursula Yovich’s Daisy (Nullah’s biological mom) and Lillian Crombie’s Bandy Legs are not much more than archetypal cyphers, this was probably unavoidable in any film less than, say 4-5 hours. Should this have been done as a joint American-Aussie **mini-series**, then, instead, spread out over 300+ minutes? Perhaps, but this film as it is is nonetheless superb, and merited nominations by the American Academy in a heck of a lot more categories than it actually was. Best Pic or Best Foreign Film (one or the other!!!) come to mind, as well as Best Cinematography for Mandy Walker, and, arguably, best musical score for David Hirschfelder and Best Editing (keeping this epic to 165 mins.) for Dody Dorn and Mike McCusker.
But I save the best for last: The extraordinary performance of first-time phenomenon, Brandon Walters. The kid was robbed of–if not an Oscar win–than at least nomination nod for Best Supporting Actor. This kid is just amazing. Obviously bright and talented (as well as, offscreen, very well-mannered and a bit shy), Mr. Walters deserves to have a stellar career, hopefully internationally, and not merely limited to Aboriginal roles *per se* in Australia. I recently read an article wherein he is said to be worried about being a one-hit wonder, and not very readily getting more acting work. Well, that, of course, depends on writers and producers and casting directors. But we can only hope that we see more productions like Aussie TV’s *The Circuit*, as superb mini-series of the summer of ’07. If there’s more writing of solid Aboriginal stories and characters (hopefully coming from Aboriginal writers), and TV and/or movie producers such as Baz and Phillip Noyce (of *Rabbit-Proof Film* fame) and Rolf de Heer willing to tackle both historical and contemporary Aboriginal-themed projects, then Brandon should be a shoo-in for some future roles. (We can only hope…!!) For now, all I can say is good on ya, lil mate!! (Note to casting directors: The Dampier Peninsula would seem to be veritable goldmine: The phenomenally beautiful and talented Everlyn Sampi of *Rabbit-Proof Fence* fame also hails from the Broome area.)
In conclusion: 5/5 stars. See this film (indeed, enjoy as a double-bill with *Rabbit-Proof Fence*–but be sure to carve-out about 4.25 hours to devout to it). Can hardly wait for the “bells-&-whistles” special-edition DVD due by this year’s holiday season. Good on ya, Baz. Good on ya–yet again!–Brandon!
Wow, it’s nice to see someone gushing so much love for this unfairly maligned film. While I can’t say I was as totally enthralled as you were by every bit of it…there were definitely problematic elements in the film, but they were outweighed by the positives…I most wholeheartedly agree that Mandy Walker should’ve been nominated for Best Cinematography by the Academy. –DHS