It’s been seven long years since we’ve 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 Luhrmann’s newest effort is a Western that morphs into a World War II romance, one that’s so expansive and vaultingly ambitious that it’s named after his homeland. Luhrmann’s fans will be delighted to know that Australia is irreducibly weird, a recognizable product of the same man behind the so-called “Red Curtain” trilogy of Moulin Rouge! (2001), William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Strictly Ballroom (1992). Even so, it’s still a much more traditional film, and that’s where the problems arise.
You see, Luhrmann’s storytelling is deeply simplistic. His heroes are heroic, his villains are villainous, and that’s all there is to know. He has no use for complicated human beings. His characters aren’t people at all. They’re 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 kids’ movies, neither of which he’s tried yet). Australia is an attempt at a more realistic and grounded historical epic, and though Luhrmann makes a mighty effort, his talents don’t fit the genre’s demands.
The film takes place in the late 1930s and early ’40s in Australia’s 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) – Luhrmann’s the type of filmmaker whose characters’ 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 he’s clean-shaven and wearing a tuxedo, probably because he’s played by Hugh Jackman.
This movie will be catnip to fans of Western movies with a taste for Luhrmann’s hearty, unabashed, unironic Technicolor romanticism. The director actually grew up in the Northern Territory, so he knows how to capture the place’s beauty. With Luhrmann’s 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 Luhrmann’s straightforward approach doesn’t 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 “Stolen Generations,” but if you’re not Australian, you’ll likely need to do some reading to appreciate what this really means and why there’s such urgency attached to Nullah’s fate. Also if you’re not Australian, you might be put off by the treatment of Nullah’s Aboriginal grandfather (David Gulpilil), whose powers of prophecy seem to make him one of those Magical Negro stereotypes that we’re 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 – if you’ve seen early Peter Weir films like The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock, you’ll have an idea of what I’m referring to. Still, Luhrmann’s handling of this material is regrettably clumsy.
On a more visceral level, Nullah’s 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 Drover’s love into an operatic romance, but it never quite gets there, perhaps because Kidman and Jackman don’t 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, Australia’s 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 year’s equivalent of Atonement, and while it’s quite a bit more fun to watch, it still leaves you unmoved.