Baz Lurhmann, 2008, Australia-USA-UK
One might imagine that a film that calls itself so grandly after a continent might have something to say about its particular history, and that this would not be dominated wholly by the romance of white protagonists. Surely we are in trouble when a film called ‘Australia’ paints the aborigines in such broad strokes that lean towards magic realism rather than their humanity? The archetypes are all present and correct: we have the Magical Negro and the Noble Savage, not only the Adorable and Cheeky Tyke. Perhaps, however, it is hard to be offended by this when every character is so broadly drawn. Baz Luhrmann’s film is not about anything other than making a big, CGI-assisted epic homage to the old fashioned classic movie. We have Nicole Kidman in an initially highly pinched and hammy performance, but one that is as uneven as the film itself so that when she relaxes more, it is hard to discern if this is meant to be character development or just a symptom of that unevenness. Then there is Hugh Jackman, with his own accent, as a kind of cuddly Clint Eastwood: he is an immensely appealing and warm performer, but all he can do here is coast. His stereotype is to be the wild-man macho Aussie, the drover who answers to no man, who represents the unprejudiced white man embedded in Aboriginal culture. He says “Oh crikey,” a lot. It’s his catchphrase. Then we have Nullah, the mixed race kid, but he is no Kipling scoundrel from which we can learn about being caught between two worlds. He says cute things, mentions “cheeky bulls” a lot and is generally appealingly played by Brendan Walters. But like all characters, his reactions bend with the breeze of the plot and erratic scenes rather than from any internal life.
Oh it is all very pretty to look at, but it has no bearing on reality at all. This is a movie derived from movies (and I say “movies” which is how I think specifically of Hollywood-style escapism, rather than “film” which incorporates “movies”). It repeats its catchphrases and appropriates liberally and somewhat shamelessly from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (!). A key example of how the film forfeits any nod to realistic detail is in the way little Nullah magically learns to play ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, just out of thin air, near enough as soon as he puts the harmonica to his lips for the first time and having apparently heard Mrs. Boss (!) hum it badly the once. Oh, we are meant to be moved and charmed, but it’s all built on nothing but whimsy and movie affectation. That is, of course, not a bad thing in itself, but Luhrmann and the screenplay - by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Hardwood and Richard Flanagan - leave the film with little of its own to offer. They trade in tropes that surely belong to those films of the past and can be considered and perhaps forgiven a little as such.
‘Australia’ reaches an ending around 110minutes in, but then it goes on and on. There are no surprises to come, only that the scope becomes even more epic with the intrusion of the war and, exponentially, the dialogue becomes increasingly trite. The drama rolls along on clichés and therefore watching becomes a passive, rote experience. We are meant to be reminded of other classics, evidently, and perhaps we are meant to carry over affections for them to ‘Australia’, but what makes a genuine classic is what it does with its tropes. ‘Australia’ is pale imitation.