Film Reviews: Tuesday November 25, 2008
Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman look good even when theyíre wet in Australia.
Starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Written by Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, and Richard Flanagan. Rated PG-13.
Wizard of Oz

This flawed, weird
Western from Australia
is a regular horse opera.


Itís been seven long years since weíve seen a movie from Baz Luhrmann. The insanely original Australian director tried to make a film a few years back about Alexander the Great, but Oliver Stone beat him to the punch. (Sometimes you win a race by losing it.) So Luhrmannís newest effort is a Western that morphs into a World War II romance, one thatís so expansive and vaultingly ambitious that itís named after his homeland. Luhrmannís fans will be delighted to know that Australia is irreducibly weird, a recognizable product of the same man behind the so-called ďRed CurtainĒ trilogy of Moulin Rouge! (2001), William Shakespeareís Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Strictly Ballroom (1992). Even so, itís still a much more traditional film, and thatís where the problems arise.
You see, Luhrmannís storytelling is deeply simplistic. His heroes are heroic, his villains are villainous, and thatís all there is to know. He has no use for complicated human beings. His characters arenít people at all. Theyíre gods or demons, right down to the smallest bit parts. His mythologizing approach and his straightforward plots work in his Red Curtain movies because he spins worlds of gorgeous unreality that can be plausibly populated by his larger-than-life characters. This filmmaker is made for musicals (or science fiction or kidsí movies, neither of which heís tried yet). Australia is an attempt at a more realistic and grounded historical epic, and though Luhrmann makes a mighty effort, his talents donít fit the genreís demands.
The film takes place in the late 1930s and early í40s in Australiaís Northern Territory, on the other side of the continent from the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Into this dry, hardscrabble farm country steps Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat in need of money who travels Down Under hoping to sell off the cattle ranch there called Faraway Downs, to which her deadbeat husband has run off. When she gets there, though, she finds him murdered and the property about to be swallowed up by an evil cattle baron named Carney (Bryan Brown) and his thug-like lackey Fletcher (David Wenham). To save Faraway Downs, she has to rely on a freelance drover named Drover (Hugh Jackman) ó Luhrmannís the type of filmmaker whose charactersí names tell you exactly who they are. Naturally, the flower-like Lady Ashley is tougher than she looks, and Drover turns out to look smashing when heís clean-shaven and wearing a tuxedo, probably because heís played by Hugh Jackman.
This movie will be catnip to fans of Western movies with a taste for Luhrmannís hearty, unabashed, unironic Technicolor romanticism. The director actually grew up in the Northern Territory, so he knows how to capture the placeís beauty. With Luhrmannís precise eye for composition and framing and the sumptuous photography by Mandy Walker, the film is always a pleasure to look at. The giant cattle stampede and the Japanese bombing of the city of Darwin are both impressive set pieces, and only the most hard-hearted moviegoers will be able to resist the climactic sequence (one of many in this 160-minute movie) when Lady Ashley and Drover kiss in the middle of a rainstorm.
Yet Luhrmannís straightforward approach doesnít always yield such good results. The film is narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a boy who becomes like a son to the childless Lady Ashley and whose mixed-race status makes him vulnerable to being taken away by the government. The film gives you some of the history of the ďStolen Generations,Ē but if youíre not Australian, youíll likely need to do some reading to appreciate what this really means and why thereís such urgency attached to Nullahís fate. Also if youíre not Australian, you might be put off by the treatment of Nullahís Aboriginal grandfather (David Gulpilil), whose powers of prophecy seem to make him one of those Magical Negro stereotypes that weíre always blasting Hollywood films for indulging in. Actually, this movie follows a tradition of mysticism that goes back some decades in Australian literature and cinema ó if youíve seen early Peter Weir films like The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock, youíll have an idea of what Iím referring to. Still, Luhrmannís handling of this material is regrettably clumsy.
On a more visceral level, Nullahís rapturous experience when he first watches The Wizard of Oz forms a major running motif in the film that repeats often without paying off. The movie huffs and puffs to make Lady Ashley and Droverís love into an operatic romance, but it never quite gets there, perhaps because Kidman and Jackman donít have the necessary chemistry. Maybe they could have put it over in a musical number. Indeed, this movie does feature quite a bit of singing, mostly from young Walters. However, Australiaís makers never find a way to properly channel its nervous energy and invention. Whenever the film threatens to burst the contours of its genre, it falls back into them instead. It tries to be this yearís equivalent of Atonement, and while itís quite a bit more fun to watch, it still leaves you unmoved.

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