Sunday, November 30, 2008

Australia Review

Dir. Baz Luhrmann
Year: 2008
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 165mins

Let me get this out of the way: Baz Luhmann's Australia is flawed. At times deeply so, but that doesn't mean I can't still think it was kind of great. Sure, it has some issues with shifts in tone, some of the editing is wonky and a large dollop of the CGI is quite obvious C-G-I, but watching Australia was like a sharp breath of fresh air. It's passionate and all-encompassing, filled with performances and scenery as big as Luhrmann promised. That exclamation point he used in the title for Moulin Rouge! could easily have been replicated here. It's "Australia" writ large.

By now you already know the plot, surely. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) comes to Australia to confront her philandering husband at their ranch Faraway Downs, yet upon arrival she discovers he has been murdered by King George (David Gulpilil). A disagreement with her husband's land manager Fletcher (David Wenham), means that she and The Drover (Hugh Jackman), as well as a ragtag group of Aboriginal helpers, must transport the massive collection of cattle to Darwin and break the beef monopoly as strangle-held by King Carney (Bryan Brown). More stuff follows, including love, loss and World War II.

Along for the ride with Ashley and The Drover is a young half-caste boy (or "creamie" as the cast routinely call him, cringe-inducing as it is) called Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters) who provides the film with a big central issue - the one of the "Stolen Generation", half-caste children who were taken away from their Aboriginal mothers and placed in homes to become white in nature if not in skin colour. Walters is a charmer and it's a mark of the strength in his performance that the character isn't perceived as a laugh. The abundant mythology that Luhrmann inserts into the movie - specifically in the form of Nullah and King George, Nullah's grandfather - could come across as mere hocus pocus magic, but Walters is so good that it never feels hokey or silly. I do wonder what international audiences will make of all the mysticism on offer, but thankfully Walters' performance is rich with details and sells it with all of his might.

Other performances in the film, too, are strong. Kidman is especially fine as the uptight Englishwoman and, far from being "lost" or "confused" as other reviews say, grounds the film in a strong solid base that is greatly needed. Jackman is impressive as the suitably fairytale rough-and-tumble Drover. Of the supporting players Gulpilil has real intensity - does he ever lack it, really? - and I've found his stoic silent performance haunting me. The likes of Jack Thompson, David Ngoombujarra, Tony Barry and Ben Mendelsohn are fine although Wenham and Brown are perhaps too cartoonish. Wenham's character, particularly, feels so modelled on Richard Roxburgh's "The Duke" in Luhrmann's 2001 musical Moulin Rouge! that, at times, it feels like the same performance.

Mandy Walker's cinematography is simply awe-inspiring. It's both broad and intimate. Spread throughout the film are moments when the beauty is so captivating - a pack of horses galloping through Faraway Downs and Nicole Kidman emerging from a cloud of cattle dust just two from many images that have been permanently branded onto my brain. David Hirschfelder's score is appropriately majestic and Catherine Martin's costume design and art direction is astonishing.

Unfortunately, the visual effects aren't of the same quality. Many times the audience is taken out of the film's epic scope by obvious and careless CGI. The insertion of Gulpilil's King George on a mountain top looks incredibly silly, and while the herd stampede towards the edge of a cliff is thrilling, the wonky computer graphics are distracting. Part of the effect of an epic movie is the sense that it was all real, don't you think? So while it may have been impossible for the cliff sequence to work any other way, perhaps more work in this area could have been done to at least create an illusion of reality.

The editing, too, is at times a bit on the nose. Instead of cutting the movie down, like others seem to be suggesting, I actually think it could have benefited from an extended run time. Passages of the film, such as an unseen trek through the Never Never and the death of one of the film's major characters deserved more exposition and less blithe editing. The latter is shown via montage, which is stranger still, and the shift from comedy to adventure to romance is just not quite on the money. Another problem I had was the overt racism in several of the characters. Yes, it was a fact of life at the time that people went around using terms such as "creamie" all the time, but it was irksome to hear characters, especially Wenham's, use it so repetitively. A bit of restraint on that part may have made Wenham's villain less of a repetitive moustache-twirler.

One of the biggest criticisms laid at Luhrmann seem to be his embrace of cliche and stereotypes, but wouldn't it make sense that that was his intention all along? One of the biggest problems within the Australian film industry is that we are seemingly so ashamed of our national identity that we are routinely trying to change it. While a movie like Matthew Newton's amazing Three Blind Mice is a representation of a more modern day incarnation of this identity - the larrikin spirit and all that - a movie like Australia isn't trying to be that. It's showing off the image that many of us have inside, but rarely bring to the foreground.

And it is that very larrikin idea that Baz is trying to represent in the film's polarising opening act. You can't make a film that stipulates to represent my country without that most lovable cliche, can you? And better to get it out of the way early. I actually quite enjoyed the opening passages, one moment with a kangaroo was particularly comical, and such a moment would have been trite and in poor taste during the film's final acts of romantic drama. And, for what it's worth, people used the word "crikie!" (exclamation point is necessary) before Steve Irwin. I say it, even.

The romance, the essence of film's second half, is rousing and charming, the bombing of Darwin is an amazing moment considering it is such a poorly represented moment in history, and the film's major setpiece - the cattle drive from Faraway Downs to Darwin - is epic in the full sense of the word. Australia may, like all of Luhrmann's films, not be for everyone, but it deserves - nay, demands - to be seen on the big screen to allow you to judge for yourself in the format that it was meant to be seen. Despite the film's misgivings I did indeed find the film to be a rollicking and captivating adventure. I don't think I can quite bring myself to give it the A- grade I think I want to, but a score of B+ is nothing to shrug at for a movie that has ambition to spare and a heart the size of... well, Australia. B+


Ben Wilson said...

I enjoyed the film very much. Yes, some of the CGI was rather obvious, but isn't it in nearly every film that uses it? The answer is yes.

But I must say I am just so angry at the response it has received by most critics; key cases of over-analysing and reading what clichés they want into it, just so they can sink the fangs in. I'm so angry I can't even speak.

Paul Martin said...

This is not my kind of film, but even I had to admit it is thoroughly entertaining, spectacularly filmed and everyone should just stop listening to the whiners and go see it for themselves. This is one of the best looking films around and should be seen on the big screen.

I was impressed by the restraint in the use of CGI; I felt it was only used when really necessary and was nowhere near as obtrusive and off-putting as say, Lord of the Rings.

Anway, Glenn, you know what I think of it.

chael41 said...

I didn't mind the obvious CGI. I thought Luhrman was using it to aesthetic/thematic effect--that is he is careful to remind us that this is a movie a la Wizard of Oz. To make it seamless realism would have made it less real, no? ;) The cattle drive is a construct ("invented" by Fletcher) but the accountant's death is a material reality (and bloody "real"--acting and makeup-wise) just as "Australia" is a construct yet what was done in relation to this construct is/was very real (the Stolen Generations). Note how all the characters start off as cartoons and end up "real."

Vinc said...

I care that Australia maybe directed by everyone, like Ron Howard, Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich. Australia is almost never a Baz Luhrmann's movie. Only in the scene where the lovers find themselves in the rain. Stop. There aren't any scenes directed by Luhrmann-style. Australia maybe a good movie, but is like says "a bad movie", a normal movie. Isn't genial, isn't stunning. Nicole Kidman is over. She is a wonderful actress, but in this movie she is in another place. She didn't give her art. Why? I don't know. Perhaps because of the hormones of motherhood.