Australia (2008)


Despite their tendency towards chaos, I frequently find myself swept away by the overwhelming aesthetic beauty of the films from director Baz Luhrmann. And although they are always quite something special to behold, I still must admit that honestly, the filmmaker's Achilles heel continuously lies within the stylistic inconsistency of his problematic openings.

My first introduction to his films was with William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet which gave me such a headache within seconds and was so unbearably campy that I ended up walking out of the theatre after ten minutes. Since then and out of friendly duty, I've viewed the entire feature on DVD. And while granted, it's gorgeous and the emotional core of the film served up by its charismatic leads Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio is undeniably effective-- you couldn't pay me enough money to watch it again without supplying me with ear plugs and a working remote to fast-forward a majority of the picture.

While I heartily enjoyed Strictly Ballroom-- like countless others, I was amazed by his sensuous take on Moulin Rouge. Although again much like Juliet, I typically find myself watching the first few minutes before fast-forwarding through the world's most annoying Sound of Music tribute until the gang ends up at the club for the first time. Yet, the difference between this one and the ridiculously chaotic and ADD addled Juliet is that--again despite the chaos-- I own and love Moulin Rouge for its incredible euphoric visual and auditory feast.

Needless to say, it was with a mixture of incredible anticipation and hesitation that I viewed Australia. Drawn to the work from the moment I set eyes on the gorgeous eye-candy shots from photographer Annie Leibovitz and its countless posters, I tried to ignore the articles I read that seemed to indicate that Luhrmann's opus-- the most expensive Australian film made to date with a whopping nine month shoot-- was in trouble. In fact, less than two weeks ago, word spread that he was still editing the film.

Red flags were raised in the film critic community as this much post-production tweaking usually doesn't mean there's confidence in the product. Likewise, the same was true when we discovered the film had been written with multiple endings (going as far as to learn that a few were shot) and it was rumored that possibly the ultimate finale was chosen to appease the studio bringing the movie to the screen.

However, while it indeed is a bit of a mess and admittedly, it could certainly stand to spend much more time in the cutting room, it's still a sweepingly old-fashioned spectacle. Additionally, it draws from so many sources ranging from The Wizard of Oz (unlikely indeed save for the fact that the setting is nicknamed Oz) to Out of Africa, The African Queen, and even South Pacific that it's sure to appeal to audiences looking for escape on an epic level.

Although, this being said, I wish the release date had been postponed and the first portion of the film had been re-shot as the opening squirm-inducing hour feels incongruous to the rest of the entire film. It's downright painful to watch Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman being forced to gasp, sigh, and duplicate the same phony and over-the-top histrionics that her character employed while trying to seduce "The Duke" early on in Moulin Rouge. Likewise, our first introduction to Jackman seems like they stuck John Ford, John Wayne, Indiana Jones, and Howard Hawks in a blender as he gets into a whopping bar fight that results in Kidman's lingerie being scattered in the dusty, dirt road.

The film is set in the 1940s, just prior to the same Japanese attack on Darwin, Australia from those responsible for the one on Hawaii's Pearl Harbor as the globe found themselves in the midst of World War II. It chronicles a prim and proper wealthy British aristocrat who-- convinced her husband is up to no good down under-- journeys to Australia.

Narrated by a young orphaned half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasion boy named Nullah (a phenomenal turn by newcomer Brandon Walters) who is an outcast in the land where he isn't welcomed anywhere because he's of mixed-race, the boy describes the woman who would become his eventual caretaker Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) as "the strangest woman I've ever seen."

As she makes her way to her husband's sprawling cattle station that's on the edge of ruin by scheming and greedy rivals Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) and King Carney (Bryan Brown), she's shocked to learn she's become a widow, but soon pulls together to save her newly inherited Faraway Downs. Despite getting off on the wrong foot when the freelance rancher and stock-man, the Drover (Hugh Jackman) who repeatedly delivers tired monologues about not being tied down or owned by anyone, soon she and the Drover mend fences.

With a group of outsiders of all ethnic backgrounds, Lady Sarah and the Drover lead the riders to drive 1,500 cattle over hundreds of miles of incredibly challenging terrain made all the more problematic when villains try to sabotage them along the way. Predictably, the two who loathe each other from the start-- even going as far as to seal the nail in the predictable courtship coffin when one says the ultimate sappy line that they wouldn't bed the other if they were the last person on Earth-- fall in love amidst breathtaking backdrops.

Jackman gives the golden-haired beauty Kidman a run for her money on who can take most viewers' breaths away, with a downright jaw-dropping eye-candy shot of a bare-chested shower. The effect found this reviewer doing her very best to restrain herself and not yell, "Damn!" as so many male viewers have done in countless other public screenings.

However, at times the film feels a bit overly computer generated and not just in the director's tremendously choreographed action scenes whether it's a stampede or in several war driven sequences in the end. And unfortunately, even some of the enchanting landscapes feel so overly heightened to capture the precise shade of every color that it ultimately keeps us at an arm's length. Yet, to his credit, Luhrmann's epic really gets us involved as soon as the cattle drive begins.

While things slow down considerably once the relationship starts, soon enough-- as screenplays all dictate-- an obstacle must drive a wedge between the lovers. Although, I wished that--of the countless screenwriters who worked on the film some would've given the actors more compelling and memorable lines to say that are worthy of its scope. However, it still remains firmly capable as a knowing "wink wink" blockbuster-to-be, both in length and in homage to dozens of other films that must have inspired the filmmaker as both a movie fan and director.

Ironically, in the end, despite its undeniable beauty, there's a messiness to the structure and meandering tonal shifts and subplots that makes Australia another imperfect "Luhrmann masterpiece." Moreover, maddeningly, Australia touches perfection enough times to make us wish it would've been better yet in giving the audience literally something for everyone whether it's a morality tale, a history lesson, a love story, a western, or an adventure film, he's definitely made something mesmerizing to behold that is one of the truly genuine "big screen" event blockbusters of the year. Especially since you just know that-- like Rouge-- unless you have a TV the size of a drive-in, Australia is going to lose some of its luster at home.

In other words, go see it and if you find yourself looking longingly at the exit for the better part of the first hour, stay with it. After all, once he works out his beginnings, Luhrmann really knows how to deliver a world to get lost in especially when it's his take on Oz filtered through the land of Oz.