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Artificial Outback

Director Baz Luhrmann promises Australia, but can't get out of his own head.

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My Thanksgiving weekend was disappointing. My daughter ran a 104-degree fever and had to go to the doctor, my wife's bank card got stolen and run up with a fabulous shopping spree across greater Memphis, and my kitchen plumbing system was (and still is) regurgitating water and food stuffs.

Oh, and I went to see Australia. I'm not sure where I'd rank the film on my list of calamities — probably somewhere in the middle.

Australia is the latest from Down Under filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, whose entire body of work is Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! (2001), and now Australia. Say what you will about him, but at least he's not prolific. Moulin Rouge!, in particular, is one of the most awful, unwatchable, empty-headed movies ever. Not to take anything away from Australia. Luhrmann's newest is itself fairly stupid. It's much less than the sum of its parts.

The plot: Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) heads to Australia in 1939 to round up her husband, who she suspects is philandering with all sorts of aboriginal women when he should be selling their cattle ranch and heading back home. A drover (Hugh Jackman, and his name in the credits is "The Drover") is hired to give her transport to the land she owns but has never seen: Faraway Downs.

Ashley finds that her husband has just been murdered — possibly by an aborigine named King George (David Gulpilil) or possibly by the ranch manager (David Wenham) who is secretly working for Faraway Downs' biggest competitor, cattle magnate King Carney (Bryan Brown). Carney wants Ashley's land to gain a monopoly, and the Australian army wants cattle to feed its soldiers. Throw in a miscegenated aborigine boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), whom Ashley wants to save and whose subplot becomes Australia's main plot. The church wants to take Nullah to an island to keep him away from his aboriginal culture — touching upon the ignominious "stolen generations" period of Australia's past. To its credit, Australia makes a noble white lady trying to rescue a darker-skinned people a contentious plot point.

Faster than you can say, "Huh?," Ashley and the Drover and Nullah are rounding up the Faraway Downs cattle to sell to the army. Or, as Nullah says, "We have to get those no-good cheeky big bulls into the bloody metal ship." Crikey. And that's just the first hour of the movie.

Australia is a mishmash of a lot of other films, so let's name some of them: Out of Africa, The African Queen, The Wizard of Oz, Lonesome Dove, Pearl Harbor, To Kill a Mockingbird — even the Bonanza theme seems to be lurking in there somewhere. Some movies aren't worthy of their influences. Australia tries to be a studio-system-era film in look and an indie prestige pic at heart. It succeeds at neither.

It takes a lot to unplug my interest in the Australian landscape. Mostly, Luhrmann doesn't trust the land — which should be the star of his show — to act right. Filmmakers such as Peter Weir, Nicolas Roeg, Ray Lawrence, and Gillian Armstrong have understood Aussie terra firma and gotten lots of mileage out of it by, seemingly, turning the cameras on.

Luhrmann, on the other hand, doctors his landscapes. There are apparently no Australian skies he likes well enough to leave alone. Instead, he combines on-location and studio sets, and the two mesh not at all. The movie should be called Baz Luhrmann's Australia. I left the theater without a sense I'd been anywhere in the world except stuck in Luhrmann's imagination.

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