Australia is as big, lumbering, vast, dry, and aimless as the catch-all title would lead you to believe. The fourth film from writer-director Baz Luhrmann is the one where his ambition finally got the best of him, when his desire to tell an all-encompassing story buckled under the weight of cloying grandiosity, wildly uneven tonalities, and just plain old bad writing. Luhrmann has always been a transformer: He takes the story and passes it through his own unique style and verve until it becomes something bigger and weirder and often more engaging than it may have once appeared on paper. Nobody figured that putting the Montagues and Capulets in Hawaiian shirts would really work, or that having Ewan McGregor fall in love with Nicole Kidman inside an elephant’s head would be transportive, but it did, and it was, and that was thanks to Luhrmann’s confidence and skill. But Australia replaces his reach with egomania, and his ability to walk a tightrope between genres with a desperate grab at any story that walks by. The best that can be said for it is that at least it’s a beautiful failure.
Set primarily in 1939, the film opens with a brief title crawl that hints at the trouble ahead, as text on the screen spells out how the chunk of Australia referred to as “The Territory” was a place of adventure and romance; and how after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the Japanese turned their ships south to bomb Darwin, Australia; and how aboriginal children at the time were taken from their parents and assimilated by the government into white society, and how they were later referred to as “the lost generations.” And these are just the few paragraphs on screen before anything has actually happened. The film then shifts to a typical (for Luhrmann) blur of plot points and introduction and rapidly spouted exposition, most of which is narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-white, half-aboriginal boy who serves as a kind of chorus for the story. The basic shakedown is this: King Carney (Bryan Brown) owns most of the land and cattle and stands to make a profit selling it to the army, but the lone holdout against him is Faraway Downs, a ranch owned by Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) and her husband, who reside in England. Sarah flies to the country to check up on a business deal her husband is trying to make, and upon landing she meets the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a cowboy who’s done some work for her husband and agrees to ferry her — in one of the films many, many traveling sequences — out to Faraway Downs in exchange for work droving cattle up to Darwin.
If the film can be said to have a main plot, that’s it: In order to save Faraway Downs, Sarah and the Drover team up with a few other riders and Nullah to push the cattle north to Darwin and collect payment. But Luhrmann ambles in so many other directions, and in so many erractic fits and starts, that even now, only two hours after leaving the theater, I’m having trouble identifying any single sequence or story in order. Part of the problem is that Luhrmann set out to make a romantic epic mixed with historical fiction mixed with weird treatise on race relations, and as such the film never feels remotely settled on what it wants to be. Every scene or line makes sense within the context of the previous five minutes (at most), but examining the film on a bigger scale makes the whole thing look disjointed and confused. At one point on the cattle drive, Sarah looks from her tent to see the Drover lathering his bare chest before dumping a bucket of water over his head to rinse off, the whole thing shown in the kind of goofy slow-motion that does as much to highlight Luhrmann’s desire to have the viewer understand his self-awareness as it does Sarah’s burgeoning lust for the cowboy.
As the cattle drive gives way to other plots, it becomes increasingly clear that Luhrmann’s film isn’t going to be about anything other than itself. One of the other story threads involves tensions between whites and indigenous Australians, and it’s handled with a lack of grace borne of the fact that it doesn’t gel at all with the larger narrative. Luhrmann’s shortcoming isn’t that he whiplashes from comedy to melodrama and back again; if anything, it’s that ability to elicit laughter and pain so close to each other that defines his earlier, better work. Rather, it’s the way Luhrmann can’t find a way to genuinely integrate the love story and the racial strife. Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge both had at their center a story of love against the odds, and everything else that happened spun out from that. But Australia jumps between parallel stories, both running forward but never touching, and the result is a film that’s constantly trying to be one thing while not forgetting the other.
Luhrmann has rounded up just about every even slightly recognizable Australian actor for the film, but it’s his leads that ultimately make and break the film. Jackman is ridiculously charismatic and could hit all the notes required of the Drover — arrogant swagger, lovelorn, adventurous, etc. — without even trying that hard. He’s likable and handsome, which is all the role requires of him. Kidman, meanwhile, is beginning to be hamstrung by her increasingly taut and drawn appearance, so much so that it’s overriding whatever work she puts into her character. David Wenham, as an employee of King Carter out to swindle Sarah and steal Faraway Downs for himself, gives the best performance because it never feels like the campy overacting everyone else is flirting with. And the scenery is gorgeous, lovingly photographed by a man writing a misguided love letter to his homeland.
“In the end, the only thing you own is your story. I’m just trying to live a good one,” the Drover tells Sarah not long after they meet in a moment of typically obfuscating and not-that-smart dialogue. Unfortunately, Luhrmann is trying to live too many stories. He’s made romantic melodramas before, but none that wind up feeling this fabricated and deep-down phony. By the time the bombing of Darwin rolls around — as the prologue said it would — the film takes on regrettable shades of Pearl Harbor, becoming a turgid soap stuck in the middle of an actual tragedy. (The ballad over the closing credits, sung by Elton John but with lyrics by Luhrmann, does nothing to lessen the comparison.) Which is a shame, because Luhrmann’s proven he’s more than capable of telling love stories full of humor and sadness and enjoyable characters. I just hope he hasn’t forgotten how.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Where's Ben Affleck When You Need Him?
Film | November 28, 2008 | Comments ()