Baz Luhrmann's Australia crawled its way into theaters this Thanksgiving, not exactly the grand entrance he - and 20th Century Fox - imagined when they set out to make the first epic romance in years. The $120 million can only be described as a box office failure, netting less than $20 million over the five-day frame, and the movie isn't quite good enough to garner the major awards this film was made for. Still, Australia is a strong and engaging entry from the Moulin Rouge director, and worth seeing in theaters.
Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman are 2008's Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, a rugged outbacker and a British aristocrat who come together despite instant disgust toward one another. The comparison to Gone with the Wind is founded, as not only every other critic and his mother are providing the same side-by-side, but Australia is - off the top of my head - the first major romantic epic since 1997's Titanic. With sweeping scenery, beautiful visuals and a romance splintered by pride, career and war, Australia is a sight to behold. Even if it doesn't quite reach that coveted level of being Oscar worthy.
Kidman stars as Lady Sarah Ashley, a woman who has traveled from the United Kingdom to meet her husband and help him with his financial investment, a cattle farm in northern Australia called Far Away Downs. When she arrives, however, aided by the scruffy Drover (Jackman), she discovers that her husband has been murdered with a spear by the aboriginal King George (David Gulpilil); however, a young, racially mixed child named Nullah (Brandon Walters) has a different story, and it involves the seedy Fletcher (David Wenham), one of her husband's employees. With him removed from the equation, it is now up to her and Drover to drive their cattle to the city of Darwin, where the army is waiting for new stock. However, their much larger rival, King Carney, who all but monopolizes the cattle trade in Australia, will see to nothing more than their failure to deliver, no matter what the costs. At the same time, Lady Ashley must protect Nullah from the government, as they are taking all children of mixed descent (white father, aboriginal mother) to insert into re-education courses.
Australia is a film of minor social commentary and the looming of war, but more than anything else it is a good ol' fashioned romance. The movie doesn't always take itself seriously, especially in the beginning, as we are introduced to the wild "west" of the Outback and the utterly clueless Lady Ashley, who screams every time something bad happens. In this way, the movie does hearken back to days of old, where the characters were a little silly and purposely placed at far ends of the spectrum, so that when their characters finally came together in romance, it would be all the more entertaining. Still, under the surface, Luhrmann has filled his picture with interesting characters and quality actors; though Jackman and Kidman play two drastically different individuals, Luhrmann cuts through their superficial contrasts rather quickly - perhaps a bit too quickly to be regarded as realistic. Nullah, the wide-eyed, smiling child who is central to the film's storyline, is also rather unique, as is some of the other supporting characters. Less enticing is Fletcher, who, as a one-sided villain, comes off as a bit cliche for my liking.
The romance between Jackman and Kidman is quite good, and this is the make-or-break for the movie. Without chemistry, the film would be lost to forced devises, but thankfully the two Aussie actors (though one of the characters is an Aussie) hold their own. I don't know if they'd go down as the most memorable pair, but both deliver quality performances (aside from Jackman's teary eyed delivery of the movie's big line, something like "Just because it is, doesn't mean it should") and keep things going.
Most remarkable is the visuals and cinematography, which is not too surprising considering who is at the helm. Even visually, Australia is predominantly traditional in its approach, though Luhrmann doesn't keep that from limiting him. While I would have loved to see a lot more sweeping visuals of the Australia countryside than are used, Luhrmann creates a slightly surreal world by successfully taking advantage of painted landscapes and other effects that properly bridge modern special effects with antiquated faux scenery. His use of slow motion is top notch; the technique that so many directors use to ill fortune is mastered here, as Luhrmann draws us into the emotions of a scene by lingering on a specific shot for much longer than usual. A shot near the end, of Fletcher walking outside to see hundreds of Japanese war planes coming to Darwin, is one that I will remember for a long time. Simply remarkable.
On the flip side, I felt that the editing was a bit cluttered in places, leading to, at times, choppy pacing. There were certain scenes, none of which I can recall off the top of my head, where I wish Luhrmann would have gone a different direction with a shot or stayed on one camera angle for a while longer. It seems as though Luhrmann had many more sweeping shots that were ultimately sliced and diced on the editing room floor. To go along with that, some scenes transition rather abruptly, or, more commonly, I never felt a sense of mounting as the story went on. In the final act, I expected the suspense of will-they/won't they to gather steam until the picture had reached a boiling point, but instead Luhrmann just switches between one character and the next without a proper flow or sense of cohesion. There are also several chronological or logical issues that the film suffers from, such as the stampede scene that changes from night to day when it is convenient for the director, which are a bit distracting. None of these problems are disastrous for the picture, but Australia never overpowered me in the way that a movie like this should.
"Powerful" is a word I like to use to describe Oscar-worthy movies, and I can't quite use that here. Australia is engaging, exciting and well-made, but it is only modestly powerful, if that. While a good chunk of the film is devoted to the issue of racial segregation in Australia, it felt more like Luhrmann stuck this in to capture a piece of Australia rather than to create a story about it. The fact that just earlier this year the Prime Minister of Australia formally apologized to Aborigines for the crimes committed against them also makes the issue less strong. Beyond the politics of the film, if there are any at all, everything from the action to the romance just lacked the power I expected. I was engaged, yes, and even hoping that Jackman and Kidman would find each other at the end, but overpowered, I was not.
Australia is a well-done film, and the sheer size of the picture deserves to be seen on the big screen, but there are enough little flaws, many of which are not mentioned in this review, that keep it from the upper echelon of films. An epic romance like this is made for Oscar glory, but between its shortcomings and its dismal box office performance, its chances are slim, and frankly undeserved. Again, I recommend Australia, just not for the Oscars.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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