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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

AUSTRALIA (2008) - Baz Luhrmann

If Baz Luhrmann will be remembered for one thing, it will be for the striking visual style he injects into his films. While Luhrmann has only so far directed four films, he has become known as a director of big, epic, romantic films. Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! were highly successful films that pitted two people from opposite backgrounds who find love despite the odds. Not much has changed with Luhrmann’s latest, an epic tale of romance set against the backdrop of World War 2 and how it affected Darwin and the nation of Australia.

Lady Sarah Ashley is married to a wealthy landowner who is living in Australia looking after his cattle ranch. Lady Ashley travels to Australia to oversee the sale of Faraway Downs. She is met in Darwin by Drover, a tough Australia cattle drover who will escort Lady Ashley to Faraway Downs. When Lady Ashley arrives at Faraway Downs, she finds her husband murdered, supposedly at the hands of an Aboriginal man named King George. Her land is under threat from Neil Fletcher, a man once employed by her husband. Fletcher wants the land for himself. Lady Ashley has little choice but to drive 2000 cattle across the Northern Territory to Darwin. She takes with her a half-Aboriginal boy named Nullah and enlists the help of a reluctant Drover.

When I was sitting watching the opening scenes of Australia, I found myself watching a film I wasn’t really prepared for. I had prepared myself for something more... serious. But having thought about it, the film fits in exactly with Baz Luhrmann’s style. While the film deals with serious matters, the film feels like it belongs to another era. It feels like it’s a film that was made in the forties or fifties, but with today’s technology and budgets. Which is what I guess Luhrmann was going for. The film does have the feel of a John Huston epic. There are huge, open vistas, a rich romantic plot and clearly defined heroes and villains. There’s no room for ambiguity here.

However, Australia is quite a flawed epic. While Romeo + Juliet and in particular, Moulin Rouge! were quite solid films, Australia falls down a few areas. It’s a long film. Very long. And in areas, you can’t help feeling that the film would have benefited from a bit of editing in the script stage. One thing that Luhrmann could really have cut back on is cliché. The film lathers on the schmaltz very thickly and thus, falls into a few obvious cheese traps. From the opening few scenes, you pretty much know exactly where the story is going, and surprises are few and far between. Having said that, the film doesn’t suffer really badly from these faults. If you can overlook these problems, the epic nature of the film will suck you in.

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are cast as the two lovers from opposite worlds, Lady Ashley and the man known only as Drover. Each of them are suitably different that it’s believable they’re from opposite worlds. Nicole Kidman’s not an actress I’d rush to see. It seems the woman has no soul. It was hard to see her as a romantic lead since her last few films have required her to be cold. However here, she’s a lot easier to warm to. Jackman, on the other hand, once again delivers a great performance. While the film doesn’t require the depth Jackman has shown in The Prestige or The Fountain, Jackman can play tough and he does so here. But the real heart and soul of the film lies in the character Nullah, played by newcomer, Brandon Walters. Walters is the incredibly optimistic and playful Aboriginal child who brings and ties Lady Ashley and Drover together. It’s a great performance from the kid and is the soul of the film.

While Australia is flawed, it’s still very entertaining. It’s huge, epic and hopelessly romantic. And while some of the special effects are a little poor, this is due to the constraints of making a film outside the Hollywood studio system. We’re too used to spit and polish and poor story, but Australia overcomes these minor flaws to remain faithful to it’s goal. Australia looks gorgeous and it’s full of compelling if somewhat clichéd characters. It’s not quite as good as Luhrmann’s other work. But it’s still great to watch.


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