For Nullah (Brandon Walters), life in Australia’s Northern Territory is a challenge. Though he’s mostly contented to spend his days looking after his mother or engaged in “catchem fish,” he has always to be alert. Nullah, just 12 years old, explains it this way: “I not blackfella, I not whitefella either.” This means he’s subject to kidnapping and reeducation by authorities (“Them coppers come take me away and make me into a whitefella”), as part of an official effort to breed the Aborigine out of the population. Nullah, like his witchdoctor grandfather King George (David Gulpilil), finds solace and affirmation in “tellem story,” knowing that past and future come together in their imagining.
The fact that Nullah is narrating Australia suggests — at first — that Baz Luhrmann’s movie will take his view, or at least note its many differences from the views embodied and enacted by the whitefellas who crowd the vast screen. But no. Almost as soon as Nullah starts telling, he’s negotiating, fitting his story with the stories of others, including the mysterious Mrs. Boss, also known as the proper British Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who arrives in the outback in pursuit of her errant husband. The husband happens to be murdered right in front of the child, who takes it as a sign of coming troubles, and so grabs the man’s panicky, beautiful black horse and rides it swiftly back to Ashley’s cattle station, Faraway Downs. Here he encounters Mrs. Boss, “the strangest woman I ever seen,” less bereft by her mister’s demise (by a glass-tipped spear to the chest) than she is consternated by how to handle his affairs.
The logical next step would be to sell the place and its 1500 head to the local baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown). It’s 1941 and the price of cattle is rising, as the army’s buying up beef to feed its troops in Europe, such that Carney and his Snidely Whiplash of a station manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) are making something of a killing. Seeing Carney’s sense of entitlement, Sarah’s less inclined to oblige than she might have been, however, and so a competition emerges, for the army is willing to pay up for whatever cattle arrive at the shipyard in Darwin first.
Lady Ashley, though she asserts she “knows her way around a horse,” nonetheless needs a cattle wrangler. It so happens, in the colorful cacophony of Luhrmann’s oversized history-as-myth-as-movie-as-movie, that she meets a drover in need of work during her first moments in the Territory, a fella who actually goes by the name of Drover (Hugh Jackman) and who’s rambunctiously committed to his Aborigine best friend, Magarri (David Ngoombujarra) — a point made by his own entrance into the movie via a barroom brawl over the bartender’s refusal to serve blacks and subsequent racist snarking by local drinkers.
Sarah is immediately put off by Drover’s uncouth enthusiasm (literally, his fight lands him smack in the midst of her luggage, which opens to send her lingerie flying into the dusty sunlight), which means, of course, they’ll be in vivacious love within the movie’s next hour (the second of nearly three). Her enchantment takes several stages, including her initial observation of a herd of big bouncy Big Red kangaroos alongside their vehicle: as she gasps with delight, he rolls his eyes (tourists!), just before he pulls out his big gun and shoots one of the dazzling creatures for meat. Sarah’s face goes even whiter than usual while his grin grows large, and so the tension-unto-true-love is set in perfect mechanical motion.
The romance develops during the cattle drive — which employs as well a few John Fordish sorts, the drunken accountant (Jack Thompson) and the Chinese cook named (oh so fancifully) Sing Song (Wah Yuen), in addition to Nullah — and leads pretty much directly to a pseudo-family unit. Both white couplers are in need of healing, which big-eyed Nullah happily prompts, repeatedly, not to mention the comedy he causes when espying their first kiss, or the tragedy he feels when they argue, especially when they argue over him: Dover sees him as deserving of his Aboriginal legacy (specifically, the walkabout, which King George suggests may be nigh), while Sarah sees him as a little boy, the child she cannot have and the child she needs to mother. Both fantasies privilege white perspectives and storytelling, desires to rescue, possess, and otherwise take care of an other.
Nullah’s story is something else, and lies beyond the ken of his caretakers. He suffers his own traumas, including denial by his white father, hunting by the white coppers, and losing his Aboriginal mother. The mixing of the child’s story (and storytelling) with the stories of the white colonialists grants the saga a certain sweep, especially when the film gets round to its tremendous and fiery climax, the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese. This occasions fear, devastation, and some heroism too, just in time to salvage the white romance, which looks for a contrived moment to be in danger, in order to up the ante of… oh, World War II.
The film makes liberal use of stampedes and explosions and even a fancy-dress ball (so Sarah and Drover can admire each other in proper glam lighting) to make itself huge, the kind of way-too-big-epic movie that so rarely gets made anymore. Both an epic and a post-epic epic, the film understands what’s at stake in such spectacle-making and knows where the conventions originated. It also wants to let you know that it knows, which results in some meta-moments, some cute, most not nearly so clever as they presume. Of these references to other famous romances (Gone with the Wind, The African Queen), the film’s most prolonged engagement is with The Wizard of Oz.
Playing on the multiple entendres for “Oz,” Australia not only features “Over the Rainbow” (performed by Sarah as gag on her classed affectations, and by Nullah as earnest wish), but also the film-within-a-film itself. Nullah is the primary viewer here, the fact that he’s not allowed to sit inside the theater proper because he’s a blackfella making the desire for another magical place both more poignant and more indicting. The down-under Oz is no fantasy, and the fantastic Oz remains — for this boy at least — quite over the rainbow.