Epic and melodramatic
Director Baz Luhrmann goes gloriously overboard with Australia
Baz Luhrmann’s new movie is too extravagantly silly to be taken seriously, and too gloriously goofy and sprawlingly ambitious to be ignored, let alone not enjoyed.
The attempt to make an Australian national epic in the form of blockbuster-movie entertainment is just one of the film’s points of real and peculiar interest, but its nakedly voracious recycling of Hollywood legends and epics, from Gone With the Wind to the child prophets of Spielberg, courts utter absurdity, not to mention a host of invidious comparisons.
And yet even with these self-imposed obstacles and much else (and maybe partly because of them), this teeming hodge-podge of exotic adventure, historical romance and cross-cultural fantasy maintains a certain dramatic momentum over the course of nearly three hours of action. The wildly melodramatic plot approaches flame-out more than once, but the unflagging energy of Luhrmann and company remains engaging, more or less, throughout.
At least some of that energy probably comes from the charming outlandishness of the story being told here—a recently widowed British lady (Nicole Kidman) is trying to save her late husband’s cattle ranch in Australia’s northern territories on the eve of World War II; a lone-wolf cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) comes to her aid and eventually falls in love with her; a mixed-blood aborigine child, Nullah (Brandon Walters), with a gift for wizardry, narrates key parts of the story; the lady and the drover give him crucial protection from the ravages of war and racism, thus allowing him to continue the spiritual journey he has begun under the tutelage of his heroically mystical grandfather (David Gulpilil, a true icon of the Australian cinema).
The first half hour of Australia feels a little too much like a marathon advertisement for not only this movie but also for a history-brandishing mini-series with the potential to run for several seasons. And the last half of the picture feels rather too much like a feature-film condensation of a much longer and more elaborate story.
The cattle drive portion of the story, mostly in the first half, is the strongest and most accomplished element of the film, by far, and the film’s easy blend of the conventional western with Australian history and settings matches up persuasively with its attention to the visions and storytelling of its aborigine wizards and elders.
Luhrmann’s enthusiastic embrace of fantasy, myth and the sweetly anarchic sentiments of pop cultural mysticism is crucial to whatever charm this hearty film folly is able to generate.
A combined remake of, say, Red River, Gunga Din and Duel in the Sun, all of it presided over by repeated visits to The Wizard of Oz? Such a project is surely doomed from the start. But there’s something rather enchanting about a movie that goes ahead and tries that anyway.