by Tony Dayoub
Australia is a throwback to the WWII-era romantic melodramas from the hyperimaginative, and just plain hyper, Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet). It is clear that for the native Aussie, it is a labor of love. The movie is the most restrained effort in a series of progressively loopier films that culminated in the love-it-or-hate-it musical, Moulin Rouge! (2001). While still employing some of his trademark touches of magical realism, Luhrmann manages to incorporate it into the story organically. And much of the movie's charm lies in its casting of some beloved Aussie actors, both old and new.
Nicole Kidman plays Sarah Ashley, an Englishwoman who inherits a cattle ranch in Australia's Northern Territory after her husband's mysterious death. Ashley unites with the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a local cowboy and nonconformist, in rescuing the ranch from being bought out by King Carney (Bryan Brown). His evil henchman, Fletcher (David Wenham), secretly framed an Aboriginal shaman, King George (David Gulpilil) for the murder of Ashley's husband. Fletcher harbors a great disgust for the indigenous population, and his illegitimate mixed race son (also King George's grandson), Nullah (Brandon Walters), bears the brunt of his loathing. Eventually, Ashley, the Drover, and Nullah form a nuclear family of sorts, separated and then reunited by events surrounding Australia's involvement in World War II.
For Luhrmann, this is an opportunity to prove himself as a major director with a subject he is obviously fond of. The sweep of this outsized opus is grand, capturing the beauty of the native terrain and its people, though still addressing the dirty subject of the Stolen Generations, mixed Aboriginal children taken from their families to bury the truth regarding their white parentage. Luhrmann takes pains to restrain himself from his usual tendency to skim past exposition and highlight flights of fancy, not always successfully. But certainly anyone who remembers the Green Fairy from Moulin Rouge! should not expect to see that sort of retread in this film which hearkens back to films like Casablanca (1942) instead.
Here any fantasy or mysticism grows organically out of the story of its indigenous people. King George and his grandson, Nullah, have a mystical connection with each other and the land. Luhrmann's penchant to run wild in the world of illusion flows more naturally here from Nullah's visions in the Dreaming. King George's spectre hangs over the film, even when actor Gulpilil isn't onscreen, because of his symbolic relationship to the country. For instance, when Australia is under siege from Japanese bombers, so too is King George, imprisoned for the murder he is alleged to have committed. What a brilliant bit of casting, too. The charm of the film is its employment of some long familiar faces from Australia. Gulpilil is famous for his role as the mystical indigenous boy in Nicolas Roeg's landmark film Walkabout (1970). Kidman and Jackman are well-known Australians who made it big here, of course. But Bryan Brown, who had some measure of success for his F/X films in the eighties is also given a pivotal role. And rising star, David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) who narrated 300 a few years ago gives us quite a menacing villain.
You'll definitely hear about Australia in the Oscar buzz, which shouldn't be surprising because of its length and production values. I definitely don't think it ranks as that caliber of film. But it is so rare to find a movie this in love with the beauty of cinema, and so entertaining in sharing its feelings about movies with the viewer. It is telling that the most magical moment of all is when the young outcast Nullah finds a way to sneak in to see a picture show, The Wizard of Oz (yes, Luhrmann still lays it on a little thick at times), at the local movie house. Luhrmann celebrates the artifice of the cinema, putting image and emotion above screenplay and logic. His propensity for the fantastic can be forgiven because he is the first to acknowledge that his movies shouldn't be held to some notion of reality, for no movie is "real." Australia is definitely one spectacle worth killing an afternoon with.