Baz Luhrmann has set out to make a big film for a big country but Australia is a preposterous shambles. The horribly over-extended running time of two hours and forty-five minutes is nothing compared to the lacklustre story, the deadening dialogue and paper-thin characterisation.

The first forty minutes of this self-aggrandised epic are startlingly theatrical, detailing the arrival of snooty Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) to the dusty town of Darwin on the continent’s northern coast in 1939. She has come to find her husband, who has spent years on the family’s ranch, Faraway Downs. All received pronunciation and buttoned-down propriety, Kidman’s bubble of aristocratic nobility is punctured when she meets her chaperone, a rugged farm hand known only as The Drover (played by Hugh Jackman).

On arrival at the dilapidated outpost, Lady Sarah discovers her husband has been killed in mysterious circumstances. He was speared in the back while crossing a billabong. The local police have placed the blame on an aboriginal elder called King George (David Gulpilil) and set out to comb the territory to capture him. However, King George’s grandson Nullah (Brandon Walters) lives at Faraway Downs and when his mother is killed accidentally, Lady Sarah makes plans to adopt him. But the authorities disapprove and want to take Nullah to a remote camp for children born of aboriginal and white parents.

Rather than sell her failing farm to the local cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), the plucky Lady Sarah decides to stay and make a go of it, a decision made in part by a scene where Jackman takes a shower in front of her. Will he liberate the passionate woman trapped beneath the layers of London petticoats? Will she turn the rough-handed free spirit into a caring and compassionate man? Once Luhrmann gets past the camp cartoon introductions, the answer to either question is never in doubt.

Following the standard set in Gone With The Wind, which the film desires to remake as pastiche, Lurhmann fills the remainder of his running time with huge, flat set pieces, painful partings, joyous reunions and snatches of The Wizard of Oz and Pearl Harbour.

Nullah and his grandfather share a mystical telepathy that comes in handy when the plot starts to sag. We see a lot of this mystical nonsense, which has no foundation in Aboriginal culture, because there are long stretches where the film seems to come to a dead stop. Then, joyously, the war starts and the Japanese arrive in a cloud of aeroplanes and blow everything to pieces.

Australia looks handsome enough on the surface. The action is scored with a stir of weeping cellos. Our nameless, shirtless hero clenches his jaw while the heroine swoons and schemes. The landscape of flat-topped mountains ringing a vast red valley photographs beautifully. But over time the film reveals itself as a hideously camp parade of Mills & Boon storytelling uncomfortably lumped together with a DVD shelf full of finger-pointing movie references.

For all its sense of ironic theatre and likeable bravado, Australia has far too many flaws to recommend. In remaking the origins of his home nation as a Technicolor fable, Luhrmann shows the best of good intentions but this spirit is not matched by the execution, which is awkward and cloying. His tone lurches drunkenly from farce to melodrama and back again. Kidman or Jackman are simply unable to keep up. The best performance comes from the ten year old Walters as the young aboriginal child, who also narrates the story. He has a bright, open face and a quick smile, in comparison to Kidman’s immobile expression. All she can muster nowadays is a pinched, lemony pout.

1 comment:

Arnie Cunningham said...

Glad to have you back. No mercy!