February 7, 2009

Thumbs Down for Down Under Flick

Roger Ebert describes Baz Luhrmann's Australia as “epic” and “sweeping,” which I can only assume is code for “tedious” and “so long you'd think it was filmed in real time.” Much as Nicole Kidman's Lady Sarah Ashley likens herself to Dorothy who's swept to the mysterious land of “Oz,” I too felt myself in Dorothy's ruby-bedecked shoes. Only, I wished I could escape from the meandering melodrama with a click of my heels and the words, “There's no place like home, where I could be watching something entertaining from Netflix.”
This is pretty much the whole movie...


Australia is a madcap adventure about an English aris
tocrat who inherits her husband's cattle station. With the help of a rugged and roguishly charming Drover (Hugh Jackman), they foil cattle barons plotting to take her land after a grueling drive across the outback. No! It's a classic, melodramatic love story: Gone with the Wind meets Crocodile Dundee. Wait, maybe it's a historical imagining of the Japanese attack on Darwin during World War II?

Actually, Australia is a Frankenstein mash-up of all these plot elements. Instead of weaving multiple themes into a complexly layered tale, the result is incohesive and strained. It's as though Luhrmann desperately wants to illustrate each idea but flips the station with ADD-like freneticism.

The characters themselves are not exempt from lack of focus. Lady Sarah Ashley wears so many hats (literally, what a wardrobe!) that it's difficult to warm up to her; at one moment she's painfully fey, then bold and independent with no real transition. Jackman sticks to what he does best, namely taking off his shirt and looking scruffily handsome (no complaints here), but the Drover never quite sheds his cowboy cliché. While Kidman and Jackman's various performances are usually widely enjoyable, their interaction in Australia lacked much spark. Trailers promised rollicking romance a la Moulin Rouge! but delivered a typical boy-meets-girl from the other side of the tracks who, despite initial antagonism, wind up doing “wrong side business.” Contrary to what Luhrmann may think, umpteen shots of the actors so close up you can count their pores does not equal romantic chemistry.

Much of the movie is devoted to and narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a “half-caste” boy who struggles to uphold his aboriginal heritage in face of being removed from his family and “re-educated” by the government. This is a tragic yet true example of Australia's “Stolen Generation.” Though Luhrmann rightly denounces this racist policy, Nullah ironically slips into the cinematic “magic negro” role and becomes a mere vehicle to unite Sarah Ashley and the Drover. Also, Walters may be a fine actor, but one more utterance of “cheeky bulls” and I would've found a way to reach through the screen to strangle him.

With a title like “Australia” it didn't seem too much to ask for gorgeous cinematography. A few sweeping wide-angle views of its vibrant namesake perhaps? Yet Luhrmann's usual painterly - almost fantastical - cinematic flair comes across as heavy handed, failing to do justice to the country it's supposed to be celebrating. Australia could have been entirely filmed in front of a green screen for all I could tell. Not only was the digital tweaking obtrusive but, frankly, rather poor. The cattle stampede was so hokey that it rendered the scene comical, not suspenseful.

If you want a poignant story of the Stolen Generation, watch Rabbit-Proof Fence. If you want touching romance between an Englishwoman and an Australian roughneck, read A Town Like Alice. If you want a good example of Luhrmann's oddball talent, rent Moulin Rouge! Just don't pack your bags for Australia.

Remember: Friends don't let friends drove drunk, or something...




**Small**







Spoiler Rant:


Poor David Wenham. His villain role is so one-dimensional he might as well have tied Sarah Ashely to a train track whilst twirling his mustache. “Pride ain't power, nyaaah.”

As many devoted interwebites have pointed out (the kind who edit Wikipedia as a hobby, I assume), The Wizard of Oz didn't premiere in Australia until 1940, a year after the film is set. “Oz” is a nickname for Australia, we get it, ha ha, how cute. Please don't subject us to another pointless rendition of “Somewhere Drover Over the Rainbow”. Your allusion is completely inaccurate! Screw artistic license, I hope you get kicked by a kangaroo, Luhrmann. (That totally happens in Australia, right?)

How to make a Baz Luhrmann production:
1) Saturate the opening scenes with bizarre, trippy images and near slapstick comedy
2) Melodramatic romance ensues
3) Main character(s) dies
4) ?
5) Profit!
(e.g.: Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, Strictly Ballroom, Australia)
“Wait,” you're saying, “no heroes died in Australia.” Au contraire, my intrepid reader. Initially the film concluded with the Drover buying the proverbial farm, but test audiences despised it so much (more than they would've any way) that Luhrmann reworked the ending. The more you know.

(Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox and www.webweaver.nu)

3 comments:

clytemnaestra said...

Friends don't let friends drove drunk. :D

Jen said...

After the movie, Jeff asked me what I thought and I said "it wasn't as epic as the soundtrack would lead you to believe."

I was hoping someone would die - the little kid would have been preferable. Or maybe Nicole Kidman's character. Not drover though, he was hot. I'm also convinced that Kidman's botox injections prevent her from having meaningful facial expressions nowadays. It kinda hurts her acting cred.

Movie Meg said...

@Mel - Yes, I have shamelessly adapted your line, ha!

@Jen - It would've been unforgivable to kill off Drover (must've been women in the test audiences). I agree, poor Nicole looked stretched bit thin.