Australia: Schmaltzy Luhrmann Epic, Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman

By far the weakest film made by the otherwise visionary director Baz Luhrmann, “Australia” is a guilty pleasure par excellence, a schmaltzy (borderline embarrassing and risible), anachronistic, overlong saga, calculatingly made with an eye on the global box-office.

Designed as a glamorous star vehicle for Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, “Australia” may be the most expensive Australian film ever produced, boasting a budget north of $150 million, a result of a luxurious paychecks and a lengthy, troubled production which took years to be made. Fox, which distributes the picture, stands a slight chance to redeem the costs domestically (the figure above doesn’t include P&A), but internationally, “Australia” may do better if audiences will be lured to attend the kind of Hollywood pictures that are simply not made anymore.

The term middlebrow is written large over the entire picture, whose writers (or rather cooks, because it’s such a mishmash of a movie) include such pros as Stuart Beattie (“Miami Vice”) and Ron Harwood (“The Pianist,” “Diving Bell”). Nonetheless, “Australia,” like all of Luhrmann’s features, is conceptual work that for better or worse (here the latter) bears the signature and aesthetics of its auteur-director. (All year, there have been rumors of studio interference during production and post-production).

Problem is, Luhrmann wants to play it both ways, make an old-fashioned war romance a la “Gone With the Wind” (or “Indochine” with Catherine Deneuve), and also offer poignant commentary on racial Australian politics vis-√†-vis the Aboriginal, and by implication, other half-castes and minorities.

End result is truly a mishmash, a movie that uneasily blends in themes and imagery various genres: Westerns, war films, dramatic romances, prison melodramas, message and social problem pictures. Sadly, wearing its big heart and enlightened message on its sleeve, “Australia” confuses pictorial beauty with real art, schmaltz with genuine emotion, kitsch with cohesive aesthetics.

While well-respected by critics, Luhrmann is not a particularly commercial director. “Strictly Ballroom” did O.K. but placed Luhrmann as the forefront of Australian directors. The deconstructive “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” impressed critics with its audacious, post-modernist sensibility but didn’t find large audiences. “Moulin Rouge” was a brilliant and innovative musical that, despite being Oscar-nominated and released at least two or three times, was a moderate success (slightly over $50 million in the U.S.)

Thus, understandably Luhrmann, who lost a couple of year prepping “Alexander the Great” (a subject grabbed by Oliver Stone’s failed epic “Alexander”), and has not made a picture in seven years, felt pressure to demonstrate his commercial viability as a major director, opting for a retro family entertainment that would have been perfect had it been made in the 1940s or 1950s.

I will not be surprised if “Australia” divides critics along national lines, and if Aussie reviewers would consider the movie to be an important or even significant work, due to its topic of the mistreatment of Aboriginals and alert social consciousness. A title card at the end of the film signals the socio-legal status of this minority, past and present.

In its current shape, and insistent eagerness to please viewers, “Australia” is banal, bombastic melodrama, marked with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and with a blatant distinction between heroes and villains. It’s the kind of fare that your grandparents would like because it would remind them of movies they used to see during the Golden Age of the Studio System.

Narratively, “Australia” pays tribute to at least a dozen Hollywood movies that have entered our movie lore and pop culture consciousness for one reason or another. The most obvious and explicit homage is to “The Wizard of Oz,” segments of which are actually shown to the public in the story itself. Moreover, Judy Garland’s heartfelt song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” serves as a musical key and crucial thematic motif throughout the film.

Other segments, images and characters borrow or pay homage to, chronologically, “Gone With the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Red River,” “A Place in the Sun,” “The Searchers,” “Giant,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Out of Africa,” “Dances With Wolves,” and so on. In a future essay, I’ll illustrate the influence of each of these cherished Hollywood classics on specific scenes and characters in “Australia.”

The yarn is narrated by a charming boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), a bright and alert native, who in the course of the narrative finds himself torn between the whites (Mrs. Boss as he calls Sarah Ashley) and his own people; he is often reminded of his origins by the vision of his grandfather, who serves as an inspirational figure, and at the end, conducts one courageous act that determines the fate of the central characters.

Before switching to a “serious” but schmaltzy melodrama, “Australia” begins as a broad satirical comedy, exploiting the notion of “the fish out of water.” In the first scene, an elegant, ditzy Englishwoman arrives at the remote Northern Territory ranch of Faraway Downs to look for her husband. “The strangest woman I’d ever seen,” Nullah observes, and he is right. As played by Kidman, Lady Sarah Ashley comes across as a prim, rigid, and uptight femme, the sort of women that Susan Hayward or Yvonne De Carlo used to play opposite Gable or Cooper. Kidman is too old and too intelligent to play such a part, and her “shy” and “shocking” reaction to her lingerie being flown out of her white-blue suitcases, while a comedic brawl is taking place in a saloon, is one of the film’s most embarrassing scenes, in which you want to close your eyes.

From that low-comedy point onward, the plot picks some dramatic momentum, when Sarah, upon realizing that her husband was murdered, takes over a shabby, rundown estate occupied by some macho Aussie cattlemen and a loyal clan of Aboriginals. Would Sarah make Faraway Downs a viable enterprise (Did Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara save Tara from decline and demise).

One thing leads to another and Sarah realizes that she needs to drive her cattle to the Darwin port and convince the Australian military to buy them. But who will do the job Enter Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rugged Aussie cowboy, who represents a variation of the kinds of roles Gable used to play (in “Gone With the Wind” and other MGM movies, such as John Ford’s “Mogambo”).

While Drover’s liberal politics (pro-Aboriginals) is honorable, it also places him in direct conflict with the other racist bigots. There’s another problem: As his name indicates, Drover refuses to settle down or commit to one woman. He’s the epitome of the “Reluctant Lover.” Would Sarah melt Drover’s heart and succeed in domesticating him into being a more responsible man and surrogate father to Nullah

Sarah’s loyal staff consists of Drover, Nullah, Drover’s Aboriginal mate Magarri (David Ngoombujarra), the boozy bookkeeper Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), and the Asian cook Sing Song (Yuen Wah). Together, they form a new kind of multi-racial community, guided by principles of honor, dignity and respect, in defiance of the dominant Aussie culture, in defiance of dominant culture.

The plot’s most simplistic element is the portraiture of the villains, King Carney (Bryan Brown) and particularly Neil Fletcher (the usually reliable David Wenham), who try to stop Sarah in every way they can.

The cattle call and stampede owe a heavy debt to Howard Hawks’ “Red River” and other Westerns, such as Kevin Costner’s Oscar-wining “Dances With Wolves,” though considering the film’s large budget, the CGI images are not particularly compelling or impressive.

The film’s second half is better and more engaging, though equally melodramatic. It deals with Nullah and his family, and their need to be protected from ruthless Aussie officials, who plan to quarantine him in Mission Island, where half-caste boys are detained. Would the kids be rescued and saved In this segment, Luhrmann¬†may be paying tribute to Mark Robson’s “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958), with Ingrid Bergman as a British woman who, despite lack of credentials and experience, becomes a missionary in China and devotes her life to the local kids.

Again switching narrative gears, the film’s last reel consists of a series of heartfelt separations, farewells, and reunions, all highly predictable and conducted by the rules of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Acting-wise, “Australia” belongs to the males, Hugh Jackman, who has never looked more physically handsome, vet David Gulpilil as King George, Nullah’s grandfather, and particularly Brandon Walters, as the narrator and central character, whose alert screen presence and intelligent conduct are the best thing about the whole movie.

The film has been overtly designed as a star vehicle for Nicole Kidman, who had appeared in Luhrman’s musical Moulin Rouge, for which she won her first Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, though she occupies the screen for most of the time, Kidman renders a lukewarm, undistinguished performance. Recently, there’s been a level of sameness about her screen work, whether she plays historical or contemporary figures. Strangely, the mega close-ups that Luhrmann’s glowing and admiring camera allots her don’t do much for her acting, because her beautiful face lacks emotive expressiveness.

Cast

Lady Sarah Ashley – Nicole Kidman
Drover – Hugh Jackman
Neil Fletcher – David Wenham
King Carney – Bryan Brown
Kipling Flynn – Jack Thompson
King George – David Gulpilil
Nullah – Brandon Walters
Magarri – David Ngoombujarra

Credits

A 20th Century Fox release of a Bazmark production, in association with Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners. Produced by Baz Luhrmann, G. Mac Brown, Catherine Knapman.
Co-producer: Catherine Martin.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan, based on a story by Luhrmann.
Camera: Mandy Walker.
Editors, Dody Dorn, Michael McCusker.
Music: David Hirschfelde.
Production and costume designer: Catherine Martin.
Supervising art director: Ian Gracie.
Art director: Karen Murphy.
Set designers: Simon Elsley, Kristen Anderson.
Set decorator: Beverley Dunn.
Sound: Guntis Sics; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Wayne Pashley.
Re-recording mixers: Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer.
Visual effects supervisor: Chris Godfrey.
Visual effects: Animal Logic, Rising Suun Pictures, Iloura, Fuel VFX, Framestore, Photon VFX, Postmodern Sydney, LaB Sydney, Evil Eye Pictures, Hydraulx.
Associate producer: Paul Watters.
Second unit director-stunt supervisor: Guy Norris.
Second unit camera: Greig Fraser.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 165 Minutes.