He’s been making movies since 1992. Yet in 16 years, he’s completed only four projects - 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 2001’s magnificent Moulin Rogue, and now the old school epic named for his native land, Australia. So why has Baz Luhrmann been so lax in his creative output? Granted, there have been a couple of setbacks (he was fast tracking an Alexander the Great pic with Leonardo DiCaprio when Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell beat him to the punch), and has rejected offers to “go Hollywood” to make standard mainstream fare. And yet his latest is so enamored of Tinsel Town’s Golden Age that MGM and Gone with the Wind should get a restraining order. This doesn’t make Australia bad, just antithetical to what we know about Lurmann’s previous patterns.
After her husband toddles off to the mythic title country to settle up on a bad land deal, Lady Sarah Ashley decides to head Downunder herself to see what’s going on. It’s the late ‘30s, right before Japan enters World War II and threatens the entire Pacific Rim. Upon arriving, Lady Ashley learns of her spouse’s death, the dire situation on her ranch, Faraway Downs, and the only possible solution to her problems - a cattle drive across miles of untouched outback. Hiring a handsome rapscallion named “The Drover” (a man her husband relied on to manage the enterprise), Lady Ashley succeeds in saving her land.
But then she is faced with two more major problems. One concerns beef baron King Carney, his corrupt future son-in-law Neil Fletcher, and the duo’s desire to claim her property. The second surrounds a half-caste aboriginal boy named Nullah, Lady Ashley’s growing affection for the child, and a government mandate which requires the lad to be taken to an island mission for training as a servant. It will take all her resolve, and her budding relationship with The Drover, to prevent personal and professional disaster.
Somehow, we expect more from Baz Luhrmann. While Australia is a movie with ambitions as large as the island continent itself, its Tinsel Town greatest hits approach keeps it from being the larger than life experience the filmmaker fancies. Granted, when you’re channeling everything from Margaret Mitchell to King Vidor, you’re naturally going to stumble upon some spectacle, and there are times when Luhrmann lulls us into a sense of clear imaginative complacency. But with its partially porcelain casting, dependence on an aboriginal approach to magical realism, and a last act narrative that piles on the false endings, what should have been stellar is merely amiable and acceptable. You will definitely love a great deal of what you see. Problem is - it has very little aesthetic or artistic nutritional value.
One can only thank the moviemaking gods that original Drover choice, Russell Crowe, bowed out of this project early on. His burly, beer swilling smirking would have ruined this film’s ersatz romantic chemistry. Beside, Hugh Jackman is a much more satisfying male lead. He brings a real sense of adventure and machismo to the character, so much that we really never care that he’s all six pack pretty boyishness and little else. Drover does have many of the movie’s strongest speeches, and hearing Jackman “go native”, accent wise, is well worth the ticket price. Sadly, Ms. Kidman is not. Though Luhrmann tries everything in his art box design powers to bring some ordinariness to the unwarranted A-list wax figure, he can’t coax a convincing performance out of her. At first, she’s merely awkward. By the time of her transformation into a woman of significant means, she’s shrill and overtly maudlin.
That just leaves doe-eyed dreamchild Brandon Walters as Nullah to carry us through, and he more or less does. With a face so sweet it could cause sugar to sour, and a demeanor that mixes his aboriginal roots with just the right amount of mainstream movie mannerism, he’s the single best thing in a film that should have several dozen such standouts. It takes someone of significant talents to avoid making a nonstop sonic reference to The Wizard of Oz‘s “Over the Rainbow” into a saccharine, syrupy statement, and yet Walters works it like the secular “Amazing Grace” it’s become. If Kidman had been replaced with, say, Naomi Watts, and Luhrmann had been convinced to pile on, not purposefully avoid, his previous visionary somersaults, Australia would truly soar. As it stands, we get a fine film frequently undermined by its own unobtainable aspirations.
And it’s all clearly Luhrmann’s fault. When he gives Jackman a “Clark Gable” moment during a fancy dress ball, or merges old school melodrama with references to outback mythos, we enjoy the revisionist reverence. But we want more of that Moulin majesty, that eye candy craziness that argued that anything could happen and probably would. The frequent montages, used to highlight instances of sex and violence, are not without their charms. But when your previous film flaunted grunge masters Nirvana as part of a turn of the century French dance hall drama, we should be wowed, not waiting to be so. By the time he gets to the CG heavy attack on Darwin (done up in complete Tora, Tora, Tora style), we welcome the novelty, no matter how uniformly fake it all looks.
With narrative threads frequently falling by the wayside, unresolved, only to see a half hearted attempt at an intertwining later on, and a feeling that no one is ever really in danger, even with evil staring our heroes directly in their flawless faces, Australia underwhelms. It’s still a very good film, albeit one marred by our desire to make it something more. If you simply stop kvetching and give in to Luhrmann’s latest inspiration, ignoring a few obvious flaws along the way, you’ll be whisked off to a land of enchantment, wonder, and occasionally solid visual virtues. But for his fourth film in 16 years, we anticipate something more from Mr. Moulin Rogue! That it’s not confrontational or deconstructionist may seem rebellious on paper, but blown up on the big screen for nearly three hours, Australia sure plays as purely conventional.