Monday, December 1, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

“Grandfather tell me most important lesson of all: Tell your story,” says Nullah (the liquid-eyed Brandon Walters), the half-white, half-Aborigine boy who narrates Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.

Too bad Luhrmann, who created this story and cowrote the screenplay, didn’t heed Grandpa’s advice.

Originality has never been Luhrmann’s thing: what distinguishes him is not what stories he tells but how he tells them. Nobody since Douglas Sirk has done color-saturated melodramas better than Luhrmann. Like a chick-flick Tarantino, he plucks colorful clichés from other movies and weaves them together with lush music, creamy cinematography, and wife Catherine Martin’s gorgeous production design to create a plushly feathered cuckoo’s nest. Watching one of his swoony concoctions, you get the feeling that no one is more intoxicated by the lush cinematography, swirling cameras, stylized acting and cleverly constructed sets than Luhrmann himself. His movies are always at least in part about the sheer joy of losing yourself at the movies.

Lord knows I love movies, so I admired the sheer intensity and seamless artifice of Moulin Rouge even though Luhrmann’s campy style and well-worn stereotypes left me cold. And I liked Romeo + Juliet, which injected a jolt of teenage hormones into a Shakespeare classic. So I was prepared to enjoy Australia, Luhrmann’s flowery love letter to his native land – but this lumbering Frankenstein’s monster is patched together from too many corpses to feel alive.

Australia is part Rabbit-Proof Fence, part Red River, part African Queen, and part Wizard of Oz. It also shares DNA with every story of a band of misfits that triumphs against the odds – or a couple that bonds over a child.

The couple is a straitlaced English lady, the porcelain-skinned Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), and a rugged Australian drover (Hugh Jackman) known only as “the drover.” The two start out like a poor man’s version of the already parodic Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke in those lady-and-the-tramp movies they used to crank out, the always chilly Kidman icing up as hard as the evil queen she played in The Golden Compass while Jackman trots out his best Marlboro Man butch act.

For the most part, their exaggerated styles fit the contours of Luhrmann’s meta Western, but they slide perilously close to self-parody when the drover washes up at night in the campground he shares with two other men, his perfect pecs glistening in the moonlight while a terrified Lady Sarah peers at him, gathering the folds of the tent around her face like a nun’s wimple.

The two soon get together, as of course they must, rounding up a motley crew of women, children, Aboriginals, foreigners and drunks for a cattle drive aimed at saving Lady Sarah’s farm from the rapacious neighboring landowner, a hissable villain by the name of King Carney (Bryan Brown). And Sarah’s heart soon melts, of course, as evidenced by the tears pooling up in those pale blue eyes.

As if that weren’t enough melodrama, Nullah must dodge the police who are taking mixed-race kids from their parents and imprisoning them in Christian boarding schools “to breed the black out of them” – and who eventually catch him. And then half the country is on the run from the Japanese, who try to occupy Australia after Pearl Harbor. True, there are a couple of idyllic years for our makeshift family on Sarah’s farm before all hell breaks loose, but that part of the movie doesn’t last long: Luhrmann doesn’t do daily life.

He doesn’t do humor either. He tries now and then, but the efforts fall flatter than the drover’s frequently ogled abs.

Instead, we get earnest pronouncements, mostly from Nullah. Walters is a charmer, but even he can’t justify the script’s lazy reliance on his voiceover narration. And, though I think Luhrmann is offering up this part-Aboriginal, part-English child as symbolizing the soul of his country, there’s something creepy about the way the director places not one but two Magical Negroes at the center of his story – Nullah and his grandfather, the ubiquitous King George (David Gulpilil) – and keeps giving them Wise Things to say in pidgin English.

The visuals are just as unsubtle, yet the silhouetted figures frozen in picturesque tableaux, stampeding cattle seen from above, and travelogue shots of canyons, cliffs, and mesas are often arresting.

The supporting cast is wonderful too, stuffed with powerful Aussie actors like Gulpilil, Bryan Brown (Breaker Morant, The Thorn Birds), and David Ngoombujarra (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Kangaroo Jack). I was also happy to see Bruce Spence, the Gyro Captain of The Road Warrior, in a bit part as a racist chief of police.

But the thing doesn’t hang together, and it goes on for too long. There’s too much repetition, for one thing. How many times do we have to see King George striking a yoga pose against a colorful background? And how many times must the drover come to Sarah’s rescue? The pacing slows to a crawl in the last half hour or so, which cycles through one false stop after another before finally lurching to an end as loose ends from the various storylines are neatly tied up.

Early on in their relationship, Sarah tries to comfort a grieving Nullah by stammering through the story of The Wizard of Oz. She’s painfully bad, sketching it out in such broad strokes that she’s done in two or three sentences.

If only Australia ended that quickly. Instead, it takes hours to do the same thing, floating so far above the surface of the stories it tells that it leaves our emotions untouched.

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