Friday, December 5, 2008

Australia (***)

Directed by Baz Luhrman


Lo and behold the most grandiose film of the year, Australia. It's been seven years since the last time we saw Baz Luhrman behind the camera. He's the man behind such sensory assaults as Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Those films, though larger than life, are still nowhere in size compared to Australia, which is meant to be Luhrman's grand opus, the film he's chosen to be remembered by. The film is an opus, clocking in at nearly two hours and fifty minutes, and luckily, the film is quite grand as well.

As the film opens, we hear the narration of a young Aborigine boy named Nullah (the debut performance from Brandon Walters). He tells the story of how he met Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), and how she would go on to meet The Drover (Hugh Jackman). Ashley, a member of the rich English aristocracy, comes to Australia to meet with her husband, who lives in his ranch named Faraway Downs with a large group of Aborigines, including Nullah and his mother. Mr. Ashley has assigned The Drover to bring Sarah to him when she finally does arrive.

Lady Ashley is immediately turned off by the rock 'em, sock 'em atmosphere of the Land Down Under, and despises The Drover upon first meeting him. The Drover is a pretty ominous fellow, you see. His job is to drove cattle, but he plays by his own rules, and that's it. "No one hires me, and no one fires me," he says, and anyone who hears it knows that he means it. When Lady Ashley finally reaches Faraway Downs, she is greeted with the knowledge that her husband has been murdered by the Aborigne King George, and that the next biggest cattle breeder, King Carney, will gladly take Mr. Ashley's livestock off her hands.

At first, Lady Ashley is content with giving away the ranch, and being rid of the place, until one of Carney's men, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) reveals a dirty secret about how the native Aborigine people are treated. Nullah is a "half-cross" as they say, meaning he was born after his mother slept with a white man, and because of this, he should be taken away, to be raised with the rest of the half-crosses. Lady Ashley, for the sake of what's right decides to keep the ranch, and with the help of The Drover, hopes that she can keep the business growing, and keep little Nullah out of harm's way.

Sure, the film's melodrama is almost as gratuitous as it is unapologetic, and sure, the film's delve into visual effects can be a little silly (Really, Baz? CGI cattle? Really?). I don't know if this is the Australian Gone With The Wind like Luhrman wanted it to be, and maybe that's why the film works. Seems to me, this film reminds me much more of those epic westerns of the 40's and 50's such as Red River or Giant, since those film's also took the time to tell the difficulties of raising a farm and cattle. In the background of all the plot, the film takes place at the beginnings of World War II, when Japanese threatened to attack the nearby border of Northern Australia, and you better believe explosions and battle scenes make an appearance.

The film's infamous production is almost as stirring a story as the film itself. After being pushed back for six months, principle photography took over nine months to complete, and then there were also emergency re-shoots just months ago to recover lost footage. The budget ballooned by over thirty percent to $150 million. In the editing room, Luhrman was said to have been juggling between eleven different endings, while getting continuous pressure from the studio to pick the one that was the most upbeat. With a rough cut running time of 196 minutes, he was then pressured to cut it down to the more manageable 167 minutes. All of this sounds like the recipe for one giant turkey of a film, but Luhrman salvaged what he needed, and came out with quite a captivating film.

Luhrman filled the cast to the brim with some of the world's most famous Aussies. Kidman and Jackman are both a romp in the film, neither seeming to take the film's overwrought, sentimental storyline to seriously, unless the scenes demands it. Kidman, especially seems content with playing a much lighter character than a film like this usually demands. It's the kind of performance that get Kidman-haters something to talk about, but it's just broad enough to fit the scheme of the film. Walters, playing what is essentially the film's main character, does a fine job as Nullah, even if I don't agree with Luhrman's endorsement, when he called Walters the "next great movie star" (can we please wait until these kids have released movies until we starting saying things like that?).

Australia will certainly turn off a lot of high-brow film lovers who scoff at it's broad appeal and exaggerated special effects. Luhrman has always been a filmmaker who has made divisive films. This is probably his least alienating picture, though, since it encompasses so many things including high drama, strong romance, frivolous action sequences and minor moments of comedy. The film's approach certainly isn't very subtle, but who said good movies always have to be? The film will keep you enthralled for every minute you're sitting in the theater, and isn't that all you want for your ticket?

No comments: