Australia (review)

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Old-Fashioned Outback Adventure

Welcome to the New Great Depression, or perhaps Great Depression: The Sequel. Or maybe we could call it Great Depression II: Electric Boogaloo. Our wallets already feeling it, and now our movies are feelin’ it, man: Australia. If director Baz Luhrmann had decided to shoot in black-and-white, you’d hardly be able to tell this wasn’t made around 1939 or so. Sure, all those gorgeous helicopter shots of the wild and dangerous and beautiful Outback would be a dead giveaway, so they’d have to go. But otherwise…
Okay, not entirely otherwise, because Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) is clearly aware of the weight of all that Hollywood history behind him, but still: this is a movie that is unabashedly old-fashioned and proudly romantic, that is sincere and straight-up, that embraces its own sentimentality without ever dipping into perilous levels of sappiness. It represents a radical swing in priorities for Luhrmann — who also wrote the screenplay with Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, and Richard Flanagan — from his last film, 2001’s Moulin Rouge! which was so thrilling partly because it felt like he was inventing a whole new kind of filmmaking with that one. Here, he’s harkening back to a past — a pleasant past, certainly, a classic era of Hollywood magic — and if the particular thrill of discovery and cinematic daring that Luhrmann made me feel last time out is missing here, well, there’s nothing wrong with cuddling something comfortable and chary now and then, either.

This might be the most satisfying aspect of Australia, the one that feels the most rewarding, from the eye of the poor-and-getting-poorer-by-the-minute proles like us who’ll be looking for escape at the movies this gloomy holiday season: it’s about a spoiled rich useless frill of a woman who is forced to actually work for the first time in her life, and get dirty doing it. It almost makes you wonder why we couldn’t gather together all those Wall Street suits who engineered this crash and ship them all off to the Outback. (Australia was once a penal colony, wasn’t it?)

Of course, Nicole Kidman’s (The Golden Compass, Margot at the Wedding) Lady Sarah Ashley is a lot nicer to look at than a gaggle of stockbrokers would be, and while we may laugh at her delicacy and squeamishness at first — man, she’s such a girl (at first) — we’re totally onboard with her as she decides to fight to save the cattle station (what we’d call a ranch) she inherited from her husband… because she grows up and becomes a real woman in the process, and one who becomes passionate about things she’d probably never even thought about before. Like justice and racial equality. Here we have a pampered English rose who has, we can safely presume, been sheltered from just about everything even remotely unpleasant, and the moment she lands in the frontier territories of northwest Australia in September 1939 — well, after a rather unfortunate incident with her luggage that surely strips away any illusions she had about the roughness of the land she’s traveled halfway around the world to visit — she’s confronted with the racial and cultural prejudices of the European-descended whites toward the native aboriginals, and they enrage her. You see, the kind generosity of the Christian missionaries compels them to remove all “half-caste” children — the offspring of white men and aboriginal mothers — from their homes and place them in mission schools, where the “black” can be educated out of them and they can be trained to be servants for white people. But Sarah won’t let that happen to Nullah (12-year-old Brandon Walters, a real find on Luhrmann’s part), who lives on her station with his mother, and for whom Sarah develops a fierce love.

Nullah’s father is station manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham: Married Life, 300), and, well… If Luhrmann gets most modern here by not ignoring all the nasty side effects of bigotry and colonialism that a film actually made during the Depression probably would have bypassed, then he is unashamedly old-fashioned in casting Fletcher as his villain, and Fletcher’s conspiring with rival cattleman King Carney (Bryan Brown: Along Came Polly, On the Beach) to take over Sarah’s lands as the driving force of his plot. Wenham doesn’t quite twirl his moustache, but almost. Australia may be snark-free — that feels old-fashioned too, though it’s probably about to come into fashion again — there is a winkingness Luhrmann deploys to acknowledge all that yes, he knows this looks a lot like other movies we’ve seen before, and that’s deliberate.

Australia isn’t quite a pastiche of The Grapes of Wrath meets Dances with Wolves, or of Gone with the Wind meets Out of Africa, but almost. But you know that Luhrmann’s tongue is just a little bit in his cheek when he introduces us to the Hero for his Heroine, Hugh Jackman’s (Happy Feet, The Prestige) Drover, who comes crashing into the movie in a pub brawl that’s straight out of a Golden Age Western. (The fact that he doesn’t even have a name, he’s just “the Drover,” the guy who drives the cattle, is a clue, too, that Luhrmann isn’t taking himself too seriously.) And there are other moments later for the Drover, too, that evoke Clark Gable and the shock of him taking his shirt off in 1934’s It Happened One Night, or of any time Humphrey Bogart wore a white tuxedo jacket.

It’s all delicious corny and pretty darn honest and wonderful at the same time.

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Wed, Nov 26, 2008 1:01am

I’ve been waiting for years for sincerity to come back into fashion. For my friends to stop saying, “I like this…but ironically” and start saying, “I like this.”

I’m waiting for people to stop being embarrassed by liking things with their hearts and then admitting to it.

Maybe we are on our way there.

Scott Nisbet
Scott Nisbet
Wed, Nov 26, 2008 1:27am

“It almost makes you wonder why we couldn’t gather together all those Wall Street suits who engineered this crash and ship them all off to the Outback. (Australia was once a penal colony, wasn’t it?)”

Good God no! We don’t want them! We already have enough bloodsuckers down under, thanks.

Sat, Dec 06, 2008 12:29am

Personally, I thought this film was bad. It seemed to have too many disparate storylines going on at the same time.

Secondly, I’m a stickler for historical accuracy. As far as I can recall, though the Japanese did bomb Darwin in 1942, at no time did they ever land ground troops on Australian territory, not even on any of the islands.

As for the matter of confiscating half-Aborigine children, while I agree this was bad, the actual historical situation as I understand is more complex than that portayed by the film. For one thing, it seemed a lot of half-Aborigines were themselves rejected and abused by their full-blooded Aborigine counterparts and would have needed protection. See this link for some more detail:

Sat, Dec 06, 2008 11:31am

For an excellent treatment of the issue of how “half-caste” children were treated in Australia until only very recently, see *Rabbit-Proof Fence*.

*Australia,* however, is not meant to be a comprehensive exploration of the issue. Here we have only *one* such child, who is in no way intended to stand in for all such children, and even if he was, how can it be called “protection” when the church and the government and the overall culture wanted to force that “protection” on him even when he didn’t need it? That sounds like the argument that some people make that American slavery was “better” for Africans because it “civilized” them…

Thu, Dec 11, 2008 2:31pm

RW, you could almost consider the islands of Papua/New Guinea as Australian territory, as it is still administered (in part) by the Australian government to this day. Certainly it was during WWII and some of the most significant battles were fought with the Japanese there. The “Kokoda Trail” for example. But your point is well made – there’s nothing worse than historical inaccuracies. They almost always detract from the truthful bits (such as the Darwin bombing – ironically ignored even by Midnight Oil in their song “Forgotten Years”). Strangely for an Aussie, I haven’t seen this yet, but I live stateside, and honestly, other movies are drawing my attention right now. But I will go, oh yes, “bloody oath” I will.

Thu, Dec 11, 2008 7:15pm

have you ever been to Australia, Maryann?

Fri, Dec 12, 2008 11:56am

No, I have not. Would love to someday, though.

Fri, Dec 12, 2008 10:55pm

To Chris, thanks for the info on Papua New Guinea. I’m a bit of a WW2 history buff and I do know of the Kokoda Trail and other battles but I didn’t know that Australia is/was administering PNG. So thanks.

To MaryAnn, who is asking about unneeded forced “protection” for half-Aborigines; good question. This is getting out of the purview of a mere movie review but if we want to discuss it, I can chalk it up to two answers: welfare concerns (though possibly misguided) and the “I know what’s better for you” attitude that is a near-universal attitude with any “advanced” people group over a perceived “lower” people group (and I’m a full-blooded Chinese man observing and trying to understand a complex issue between white Australians and Aborigines).

Even today, in our more modern times, we have special-interest groups (usually lead or pioneered by white people) who object to, say, the Japanese whale-meat diet and African female-circumcision ceremonies, and the objectors denounce them, regard them as “lower” people doing wrong things, wants them to “improve” and stop some unwanted ways (by force if necessary), even if the Japanese and Africans don’t really want to. Same thing with the white Australians of the time, who probably thought they were doing the right thing for half-castes. I’m not saying I agree with this but that’s the way with most “best intentions”.

Come to think of it, I seem to recall that Nicole’s Sarah Ashley character wants to raise Nullah according to her own ways (wants to send him to a ‘proper’ school or something like that) and even initially objecting to a planned initiation ceremony by the boy’s grandfather. So irony of ironies, our great movie heroine was herself really planning a version of the same “protection” mindset (no doubt with welfare concerns and “I know what’s best”) of her contemporaries.

Sun, Dec 14, 2008 2:12am

The “half-caste” schools were “raising” these children to be servants to the white colonials. That’s not concern for “welfare” — it’s concern for ensuring there are enough working-class slaves to do the scut work the rich people don’t want to do for themselves. Which is not at all the same kind of issue as preventing unwilling girls from being mutilated and having much of their nature as sexual beings taken away from them before they ever know what that means. (And before the trolls descend, I’ll say that I think that male circumsion is barbaric, too, but for female “circumcision” to be even remotely comparable, male circumcision would have to involve removal of the penis itself.)

BTW, Sarah was *wrong* to object to Nullah’s involvement in his own culture’s inititation. Which I think the film makes perfectly clear.

Tom Buckner
Tom Buckner
Wed, Dec 31, 2008 12:12pm

We saw Australia at the multiplex a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was pretty good, but for me the high point was an accident. About twenty minutes from the end, at ths high point of the action, the film melted. Really. We’ve all seen the film melt or break, as a jest, in various movies. But this time it actually melted, and they needed about eight minutes to get it going again. I laughed so hard tears were streaming down my face. They issued us all free passes… but I think they should have charged extra.

Wed, Dec 31, 2008 1:44pm

I was a projectionist for a couple years with three of the most ramshackle projectors ever cobbled together (most of the parts for two of them were salvaged from a flooded theater). I’ve only seen two films melt, and one was a print from the late 60’s. It’s pretty rare for it to happen with a new print on a modern projector (unless the projectionist is incredibly careless). You’re a lucky man.