Thursday, September 3, 2009

Australia: A Review (Review #22)


I keep on falling in and out of love with Baz Luhrmann. Sometimes I love him (Moulin Rouge!), sometimes he makes me mad (Romeo+Juliet). With Australia, an homage to his homeland, I'd say even the felons sent to populate the continent would be embarrassed by it. In his efforts to make a sweeping epic, he's only succeeded in sweeping away two talented actors into a storm of stupidity and a colossal embarrassment for everyone involved, including the audience.

There isn't ONE story in Australia. There are about three or four all slammed together, and that is its chief problem. Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat, is determined to have her husband sell Faraway Downs, the cattle station they own in Australia. Determined to force the issue, she flies from Britain to Darwin in Australia's rough & tumble Northern Territory. She suspects her husband of enjoying the pleasures of 'waltzing Matildas', and is irritated when she is met not by Lord Ashley, but by The Drover (Hugh Jackman, going for another "hunky" role). Lady Ashley and The Drover (we never do learn his real name, though she keeps referring to him as "Mr. Drover", oblivious to the fact that's his job not surname) go to Faraway Downs, where they discover two things: Lord Ashley has met a violent end, and Nullah, a child who is a self-described "creamy" (a person of half-Anglo, half-Aborigine background). We also discover that this station is the only one NOT owned by "King" Carney (Bryan Brown), and thus the only competition to his efforts to land the lucrative Army contracts for their cattle needs. After a violent encounter with her overseer, she persuades The Drover to drive the cattle from Faraway Downs to Darwin.

And all that is in the first HOUR, with another TWO HOURS to go.

Rather that waste time going through all the plots in Australia, it might be easier and faster to give a rundown of all the movies that it stole from. It goes from Out of Africa (all Kidman had to do was say, "I had a station in Australia"), then turns into Red River (perhaps it could have been called The Woman from Snowy River) and dives in straight into Pearl Harbor (pun intended). Throw into the mix a nice touch of Aborigine mysticism a la Dances With Wolves and you've got a monster of a tale that's as large as the Outback, and just as empty.

Where to begin on where it all went wrong? Let's start with the performances.

Nicole Kidman adds another horrible performance to her resume with her Lady Ashley. She is clueless, stupid, completely unaware of anything that is going on, and has this curious, breathy delivery to her speech. She was so dumb that I actually wrote in my notes, "Is this suppose to be a COMEDY?" No one can be THAT clueless with children, especially after said child just lost his mother. It was pleasant to hear Jackman speak in his native accent, but I saw nothing in his performance other than an obligatory shirtless shot, and a near-permanent growl a la Wolverine. Bryan Brown added nothing to "King" Carney, except a chance to wonder why another good actor would want to embarrass his homeland in this fashion. Actually, that could be said of everyone involved. One wonders if cast & crew is ashamed to be from Oz.

Second mistake: story, or rather lack of one. As large and grand and LONG as Australia is, it really has nothing to say. As stated earlier, it tells SO many stories it can't bind them together into one coherent narrative. Lady Ashley's story, The Drover's story, Nullah's story, Nullah's grandfather King George's story, "King" Carney's story, even the continent of Australia's story--none of them gel into ONE EPIC story, just little bits crammed together. If I have to guess the story isn't about Lady Ashley & The Drover, but about Nullah, you've got problems. If one examines Australia, you'll find the story is suppose to center around Nullah--he's the narrator and the film bookends with statements about the Stolen Generation (half-Aborigine children forced from their families, in the style of Native Americans here). However well intentioned all this was, by wrapping up serious issues within a vapid love story makes a mockery of the seriousness of the issues being brought up.

Third mistake: The Magical Aboriginal Mystical Tour. I'm all for Aborigine rights, and the treatment of the native people of Australia by the colonist is a shameful mark on an otherwise excellent reputation for tolerance Down Under enjoys. To its credit the film goes out of its way to respect their traditions: the opening, for example, warns Aborigines that they will see images of dead people, which I gather is something they cannot see. However, Australia takes the "mystic" nature of the People of the Dreaming and carries it to an outrageous extent. The silliest is when there is a stampede of cattle. Nullah races ahead of the cattle, stands right up to the edge of the cliff, then pulls his arms out towards the animals and they all stop. It's so laughable that it becomes insulting: to both audience AND Aborigine. If he's only half-Aborigine, imagine what he could do if he were full-blooded? Maybe he could have stopped the Japanese from bombing Darwin, but that's another story.

Ultimately, Australia fails in everything it tries: love story, adventure, history, respect for the native Australians. You'll get a better and more authentic taste of Australia when you go to the Outback Steakhouse.

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