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Australia/USA 2008
Directed by
Baz Luhrmann
164 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Synopsis: In Northern Australia prior to World War II, an English aristocrat, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) takes over the running of a cattle station, Faraway Downs, after the tragic death of her husband. When she discovers that cattle baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown) is plotting to take her land, she reluctantly joins forces with “Drover” (Hugh Jackman) to drive 1500 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of the country's most unforgiving land to Darwin, accompanied by an Aboriginal boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters).

If, as the media has reported, Nicole Kidman is considering retiring, Australia will make a fitting book-end to a remarkable career that more or less started with her appearance in Bush Christmas, a kid’s adventure film set in the Australian outback, twenty five years ago. Returning to native soil she once again stars in a story of derring-do and family values and acquits herself handsomely. Baz Luhrmann’s much-trumpeted film is a wonderful big-screen spectacle that, as did Indiana Jones And The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in its day, delights with its all-out tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and marvellously swish production values

Well…for the most part. For, whilst being a first-class production, dramatically it is fatally flawed by its two-part narrative structure. The first part, which concerns the cattle drive and the bonding between Sarah, Nullah and Drover, delivers just about everything you could ever want from an adventure-romance – a dashing hero and a beautiful heroine pitting themselves against a seemingly invincible villain with the assistance of a plucky young boy, and of course, triumphing and falling in love. The second part, which follows the trio’s stories as Nullah is taken away by the missionaries under the then-Government-sanctioned assimilation program and WW2 arrives in the form of the Japanese bombing of Darwin, shifts the film’s emotional tone from the relatively escapist mood of the first part to something much darker and, if not realistic, then at least referring much more emphatically to the real world. Not only does it add nothing to the film thematically or dramatically, this part of the story ending up in exactly the same place emotionally as the first part, but in exceeding the natural emotional and narrative closure that comes around the 2 hour mark with the completion of the drive, it loses its hold. What worked so well in the first part is redundant in the second with too much CGI enhancement, too many settings we’d already witnessed revisited, too many generic story-telling devices and with no dramatic or character developments to give any of it a justification (and given the film's $150m budget and profligate shooting ratio of 300:1 this, for many struggling local filmmakers, is putting it kindly). A simple cut at the end of the first part would have made Australia a near-perfect genre film. The second part could easily have formed the bulk of a sequel. It wouldn’t have been as good but at least it wouldn’t have tarnished the achievements of its predecessor.

Why Luhrmann and his team decided to go with the film in its present form is not clear but presumably it was motivated by the need to satisfy its rather grandiose and hubristically-appropriational title. In this respect it is not successful. The whole bombing of Darwin sequence is far too anonymous (presumably by intention) to speak to anyone’s sense of national pride (and the representation of the Japanese, a summary execution, is particularly ill-judged).

Its other tilt at our collective consciousness comes in its address to the issue of the “Stolen Generation”. Whilst it is to its credit that it incorporates this subject into its plot, and despite its opening and closing titles, Australia is no more “about” this than it is about British Imperialism (and in this respect, hats off to Ben Mendelsohn for his Captain Dutton) and the cultural cringe that shaped our national thinking at least until the 1970s when assimilation ceased to be government policy. With justice, Luhrmann’s film should have been called “Once Upon A Time In Australia” Not only would it have more clearly reflected the film's cornball parameters but also made itself a much smaller target for the barrage of politically-correct critical vitriol that has been heaped upon it. (One might also cite here Harry Watt's much more modestly titled The Overlanders, produced by Ealing Studios in 1946 which also dealt with a war-time cattle drive).

Overall, Australia is a lot of fun and technically, an impressive piece of film-making. The cast is a who’s who of Australian film, Mandy Walker’s photography is stunning and the production design superb. But do yourself a favour - walk out once the drove is completed and Nullah’s voice-over has summarised their story. Believe me, you will have seen a damn fine film. Stay and you’ll see one that might have been.




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