“AUSTRALIA” (2008) Review

“AUSTRALIA” (2008) Review

I might as well say it. I have never been a fan of director Baz Luhrmann’s films. ”STRICTLY BALLROOM” (1992) had failed to generate my interest. I could say the same about the 1996 version of ”ROMEO AND JULIET” As for ”MOULIN ROUGE” (2001), I loathe the highly acclaimed film. Considering my views on Luhrmann’s past films, I had no desire to see his latest endeavor – namely ”AUSTRALIA”, which stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. 

”AUSTRALIA” struck me as a character study of its three main characters – Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat who inherits her late husband’s cattle station (Kidman); her Drover (Jackman); and Nullah (Brandon Walters), the mixed blood child of Lady Ashley’s Aborigine maid and a white man. Written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Richard Flanagan and Ronald Harwood, this three-way character study focuses upon Lady Ashley’s attempts to maintain her fortune and cattle station, and keep her newly formed family together that includes Nullah and the Drover. Threatening Lady Ashley’s plans are a greedy cattle baron named King Carney (Bryan Brown), Australia’s ”Stolen Generation” policy regarding mixed blood children, World War II, the Drover’s emotional cowardice, the villainous machinations of a station manager named Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) and her own possessive nature. All of this is set against the epic backdrop of Australia’s Northern Territory between 1939 and 1942. The story reaches its apex in the Japanese bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942.

If I must be frank, ”AUSTRALIA” is not the type of film I could see earning nominations for any major movie awards. Except for one possible category. It is not perfect film. Let me rephrase that. ”AUSTRALIA” struck me as the type of popcorn epic that would be more appreciated during the summer season. Personally, I would compare it to Michael Bay’s 2001 film, ”PEARL HARBOR”. Only the latter struck me as slightly superior. Thanks to Luhrmann’s direction and the screenplay he co-wrote with Beattie, Flanagan and Harwood, ”AUSTRALIA” had the bad luck to be marred by overblown melodrama that had seen its heyday in television soap operas like ”DYNASTY”. This seemed very apparent in the film’s last act that followed the Darwin bombing. Obstacle after contrived obstacle popped up endlessly to prevent Sarah Ashley, the Drover and Nullah from enjoying a tearful reunion.

Another aspect of the film that annoyed me was its first twenty minutes that introduced the main characters. Quite frankly, those early scenes baffled me. What exactly was Luhrmann trying to achieve? I found myself watching a badly acted spoof on costume epics or Australian culture with exaggerated performances by Kidman, Jackman and Jack Thompson, who portrayed Lady Ashley’s alcoholic accountant, Kipling Flynn. Speaking of Thompson, the poor man seemed truly wasted in this film. He only hung around long enough to give an over-the-top portrayal of a drunken man who ends up being killed by stampeding cattle. And all of this happened before the first hour.

Judging from the above, one would assume that I disliked ”AUSTRALIA”. Heartily. Guess what? I don’t. In fact, I found myself becoming a fan of the movie by the time the end credits rolled. How was that possible? Well, once Luhrmann’s tale rolled past that . . . bizarre first twenty minutes, it actually improved. To my utter surprise, I found myself getting caught up in Lady Ashley’s horror at the discovery of her husband’s murder, her growing affection for Nullah and the other hands on Faraway Downs, her new cattle station and her growing attraction toward the Drover. The movie’s first main action piece centered around Lady Ashley’s attempt to save her station with a cattle drive to Darwin. Not only does she develop a close relationship with Nullah, but falls in love with the Drover. And she also earns a strong enemy . . . not King Carney, the cattle baron who is determined to monopolize the cattle industry in the Northern Territory, but her husband’s former station manager who not only works for Carney, but longs to take possession of Faraway Downs for himself.

One of the amazing aspects about ”AUSTRALIA” is that the movie managed to provide an entertaining romance between two interesting, yet flawed people. Despite their hokey acting in the film’s opening sequences, Kidman and Jackman did a solid job in creating chemistry between Lady Ashley and the Drover – two people who seemingly had no business in becoming a couple. Kidman eventually portrayed Lady Ashley as a warm and passionate woman who was afraid to let go of those she loved. This Lady Ashley was a far cry from the ridiculously shrill woman that first arrived in Australia. And Jackman transformed the Drover from the blustery and macho Australian male archetype into a caring man who was also afraid to become emotional close to anyone. David Ngoombujarra gave solid support as the Drover’s close friend and colleague, Magarri. Well known actor-dancer David Gulpilil was very imposing and unforgettable as King George, a magic tribal leader suspected of killing Lady Ashley’s husband. And veteran actor Bryan Brown was very entertaining as the charismatic cattle baron, King Carney. Surprisingly, Brown’s character did not end up as the movie’s main antagonist. That task fell upon David Wenham, who portrayed Neil Fletcher, Lady Ashley’s station manager and later, business adversary. Recalling Richard Roxburgh’s over-the-top performance as the Duke of Monroth in ”MOULIN ROUGE!”, I had feared that Wenham would utilize the same approach. Thankfully, Wenham’s villainy turned out to be more nuanced and low key. He gave a perfect portrayal of an insecure man who not only harbored a deep resentment toward the more privileged types like Lady Ashley and King Carney, but was too racist to acknowledge his own half-white/half-Aborigine son, Nullah, who also happened to be tribal leader King George’s grandson. But the real star of ”AUSTRALIA” turned out to be the young Aborigine actor, Brandon Walters, who portrayed Nullah. All I can say is – where did Baz Luhrmann find this kid? He was phenomenal! This is the second movie in which Nicole Kidman found herself co-starring with an inexperienced, yet very talented child actor (the first being Dakota Blue Richards of ”THE GOLDEN COMPASS”). Walters, who turned out to be a very charismatic and talented young actor, literally stole the picture from his co-stars. And I suspect that must have been unusual thing to do in a movie that was nearly three hours long. Whether Walters prove to become a future star – only time will tell.

But ”AUSTRALIA” is not just about the characters. Luhrmann did a pretty good job of re-creating Northern Australia during the early years of World War II. And he received able support from people like Production Designer/Costume Designer Catherine Martin (Academy Award winner), Art Directors Ian Gracie and Karen Murphy, Cinematographer Mandy Walker, Special Effects Supervisors Aaron and Brian Cox, and Visual Effects Manager Katrin Arndt. I was especially impressed by Walker’s photography of Sydney, Bowen and Northern Australia locations such as Darwin and Kununurra. She did a beautiful job of capturing the rugged and dangerous cattle drive that dominated the movie’s first half. I also have to commend both her photography and Arndt’s special effects team for the sequence that featured the Japanese bombing of Darwin. My only quibble about the bombing sequence was that it did not last very long. Granted, ”AUSTRALIA” is not”PEARL HARBOR” and its plot did not revolved around the Darwin attack as the latter film revolved around the December 7, 1941 attack in Hawaii. But, I must admit that I had been looking forward to a sequence with a little more depth than was shown.

The Japanese attack upon Darwin was not the only historical topic that dominated ”AUSTRALIA”. The movie also focused upon Australia’s policy toward those children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian and State government agencies and church missions between 1869 and 1969. One of the victims of this policy turned out to be Nullah, who is Aboriginal on his mother. The movie featured three chilling scenes that conveyed how this particular policy affected Nullah’s life. The most chilling centered around Nullah and his mother’s attempt to hide from the local police inside Faraway Down’s water tower – an act that leads to his mother’s death by drowning.

I am not surprised that ”AUSTRALIA” was never considered Best Picture material.  It certainly was not even by me. Luhrmann had indulged in a little too much melodrama – especially in the film’s last half hour – to suit me. And I found the movie’s first half hour very confusing. I did not know whether Luhrmann had expected the audience to take it seriously or realize that he was trying to spoof epic movies or Australia in general. Whatever he was trying to achieve, I feel that he had made a piss poor effort. But as I had pointed out earlier, once Kidman’s character arrived at her late husband’s cattle station, the movie found its groove and Luhrmann proceeded to unveil an engrossing, yet entertaining epic tale.

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