Director: Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet)
Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan
Producers: Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Knapman, G. Mac Brown
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 165 min
As the credits rolled for Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, I struggled to remember whether I’d actually read an entire synopsis for the film. With a running time of nearly three hours and the glorious trailers and stills, I imagined it to be some sort of war epic with a love story in the backdrop. What I didn’t expect was a full blown romance with everything else in the background.
In the tradition of the classic epics, think Gone With the Wind made in the 21st century, this is a story of love conquering all. It begins with Lady Sarah Ashley deciding to travel to Australia to sell the family’s defunct cattle ranch. Once there, she enlists the help of Drover, a wild Australian considered by many to be nothing more than a “black”, and in the process of driving 1,500 head of cattle from Faraway Downs to Darwin, she tames the “wild” man and the two fall in love. Sounds a bit cheesy? That’s because it is.
But the film isn’t all passionate looks across desert landscapes, cattle and dancing in the rain. Though the war plays a small part in the story, the film is more of a history lesson than anything else. Who ever would have though that my Anthropology classes on Australian Aborigines would come in handy? In actuality, they didn’t since Luhrmann and writers Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan do a good job of outlining the basics but I was surprised to find the role that these traditions play in the story. The incorporation of cultural aspects such as Dreaming, the oral tradition and even the walkabout come as a pleasant, if unexpected, surprise.
More unexpected than the historical and cultural lesson is the traditional and predictable story: there are the lovers who, despite appearing to have nothing in common, fall for each other; a war that threatens to divide them; a rival cattle rancher who wants nothing more than to take full control of the business and will go to any length to get it; the separation of the lovers and then, at the end, the reunion. Perhaps it’s the look of the film or the actors but for one reason or another, the paint-by-numbers approach is mostly successful and the film moves along at a great pace, never slowing down enough to bore the audience. Some may find the return to the Aborigines’ story on the slow side but this appears to be one of Luhrmann’s major story points and though it’s slower than the rest of the film, it’s gorgeously shot. Particularly memorable is the montage of images of King George singing his way across the desert. Not only is the scene beautifully haunting but it also accentuates the fact that these people have survived on the land long before the white man arrived and will continue to survive, if not thrive, regardless of the “civilized” man’s attempt to change them into something they’re not. On a deeper level Australia is a story of race relations in the county, an unhealthy history that Luhrmann and his crew have decided is important to remember rather than brush under the mat to be forgotten. It’s a story of resilience that is apparent in both the Aborigine story and the romance except this particular history lesson looks better than most.
Mandy Walker, one of the few female cinematographers working in the business, captures the magnificence of the continent with sweeping aerials and breathtaking sunsets which are as much of a “Travel Australia” commercial as they are backdrops for the steamy romance between the leads. Both Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman are the embodiment of classic movie stars, Jackman’s Drover sweeping in to rescue Kidman’s apparently defenceless and clueless, Lady Ashley (or Mrs. Boss as she’s lovingly referred to) but as with Scarlett O’Hara before her, Mrs. Boss has more of a backbone than anyone expected. Kidman and Jackman ham up the performances, bringing the melodrama at all the appropriate points but the two leads also shift effortlessly into the quiet, intimate moments in which the two shine.
Australia is likely to surprise more than a handful of movie goers, it certainly surprised me, but there’s enough material to go around for everyone. Film snobs will revel in the beauty of the mise en scène while the rest will be content to take in the romance which is propelled forth by two very appealing leads who are continuously shown in provocative, if clichéd, scenes – how else are we to react to Jackman rounding up horses in slow motion; dust flying everywhere, sweat on his brow, sunset in the background? The melting hearts of the females in the crowd was audible.
Clear the evening, start with cocktails and a romantic dinner and prepare yourself to be swept away into a timeless romance.
Click “play” to see the trailer: