There are those who think Baz Luhrmann is nothing short of a cinematic genius but I am not one of them – of the three movies he’s directed, I haven’t seen Strictly Ballroom yet but I found Romeo + Juliet more interesting in theory than in execution while Moulin Rouge! just annoyed the hell out of me. But I can’t bring myself to ignore his work either because my main frustration with his movies is that he displays just enough brilliance to make me expect more out of him without his ever quite delivering on that promise. It’s like an architect who designs really amazing, towering, complex structures, yet neglects to put in a stairway.
Much of this has to do with his casting choices. His imagery is top-notch, his ear for music is perfect and the people he casts for supporting roles are brilliant – and then he arrives at his lead roles and everything collapses like a cheap deck of cards. In Romeo + Juliet, we had the super lovely and charismatic Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes who together demonstrated all the emotions from A (impassive/ constipated) to B (making cow eyes/ kissing). Then there was Moulin Rouge! where once again a super lovely and charismatic couple i.e. Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman marched determinedly from A (befuddlement) to B (increasing bouts of hysteria).
So it was a given that I’d go see Australia (listen, I saw Singh is Kinng, I’m not picky) but the odds were good that I wouldn’t much care for it. So it’s a bit of a shock to find myself rather in love with it.
One reason for this is that Luhrmann finally got his lead couple right. Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman are just as super lovely and charismatic as he likes to direct them, but there’s a depth to these actors as well as the characters they play in this movie that I haven’t noticed in either Romeo + Juliet (which, frankly, is not one of my favorite plays nor are they anywhere near my favorite Shakespearean characters so I’m prepared to cut all involved some slack on that count) or Moulin Rouge! (simply unbearable lead characters).
Tonnes of ink have been spilled about Kidman’s marble brow (as well as her movie star status) and how it adversely affects the film, but she is in fact its strength. For one thing, she is cast perfectly to type: English rose with a spine of steel trying to find her feet in a strange land. The immovable brow coupled with her ease of body language (a trait that Luhrmann seems particularly able to tap in her – it served as the foundation of her performance in Moulin Rouge! as well) is just right for the uptight Lady Sarah forced to deal with a range of experiences and emotions for which her former life did not train her.
Luhrmann likes to reference Gone With the Wind as the inspiration for his epic, but his heroine is a standard from an entirely different kind of epic, more in the style of Out of Africa and Heat and Dust.
Kidman’s Lady Sarah Ashley is at the very top of the social heirarchy and is imbued with the kind of confidence (and occasionally arrogance) this bestows upon her kind – she has a certain idea of what the world is like and she sees no reason why trifling inconveniences like driving cattle through the outback should interfere with it. And like other Lady Sarah Ashleys before her, Australia portrays her transformation from disdainful colonizer to humble human being through her close interaction with a foreign land and its people. From an instinctive fear and suspicion of other people and their customs, she must determine for herself whether she loves the land enough to accept its ways rather than imposing her own desires on it.
It’s extremely easy for a movie of this type to come off as glib and condescending and Luhrmann deserves credit for the way he handles the growing bond between Sarah and her adopted land through her relationship with Nullah (Brandon Walters – the most beautiful little boy who just about killed me with his performance).
Nullah is half-white, half-black (Aboriginal) and, sometimes literally, pure magic. Set in the era when the Australian government followed a policy based on eugenics that is now termed The Stolen Generations, Nullah lives in fear of the day when the authorities will forcibly take him away from his mother so he can learn how best to live up to the white side of his bloodline without, of course, ever being fully accepted as white. He will never fit anywhere, he thinks sadly to himself, never have a story of his own.
In an ironical twist of fate, it is child-less, English Sarah who ultimately becomes that mother from whose arms he is snatched and who is willing to deal with the devil himself to win him back. This probably bears further study but there just might be an argument to be made that Australia works as a (romanticized?) view of colonialism in which Sarah embodies the mother country that has to learn to accept the colonial child on his own terms and let go.
Of course, at the other end of things we have Hugh Jackman who plays The Drover, the traditional foil to the Sarah character – the white man who has no problems immersing himself in the native culture and doesn’t care who looks down on him for it. His compulsions are his own and deeply personal, he leaves nations and the mysterious, nasty ways of their powerful strictly alone. He doesn’t wish to be involved. He’s burnt his fingers once and that has been a lesson to him.
In his other movies, I’ve felt that Luhrmann was able to instinctively zero in on one great strength of his male leads and used them to mixed effect: di Caprio’s sulky prettiness in Romeo + Juliet, McGregor’s sheer niceness in Moulin Rouge! In Australia, he trains his lens on Jackman’s manliness and you don’t see me complaining.
The Drover has bar brawls, he rides a horse, he wears a tux to perfection, he knocks back his liquor, he saves little children from burning islands and, in one absolutely perfect (and perfectly hilarious) scene, he raises a bucket of water like he’s posing for an art class and rinses off his Wolverine muscles in front of an awestruck Sarah. It sounds like career suicide but Jackman manages to invest The Drover with more than highly developed pecs – there’s a lovely heart beating inside the vast expanses of his manly chest.
Throw in Japanese bombs, a truly sinister villain, dancing in the rain, a magical grandfather, some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet, kangaroos, and The Wizard of Oz… I rather loved it.