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.