Strictly speaking, Baz Luhrmann has made only one musical, the guilty pleasure Moulin Rouge (2001). But, last seen directing Puccini’s opera La bohème on Broadway, he can’t seem to resist the genre. Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and now Australia all incorporate key elements of the musical: exaggerated emoting, spectacle, and especially, songs. Australia directly quotes whole numbers from The Wizard of Oz, but is actually better described not as Luhrmann’s Oz but as his Gone With the Wind. Which is to say, it’s an overlong costume drama faintly condescending towards its non-white characters and preoccupied with the epic spectacle of cities burning during wartime.
Australia‘s biggest flaw is structural, being essentially two discrete movies featuring the same characters. Imagine a double feature of a movie and its sequel, smashed together into one. The first half concerns the Australian market for cattle needed to support the Allies’ war effort. Englishwoman Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman – a native Aussie who even here has to affect an accent) owns a small ranch in the outback, and believes her absent husband is cheating on her. She travels down under to sell the land in order to pay down debt, but also to rid her husband of what she imagines to be his adulterous refuge. There, she learns he has been murdered by the monopolizing “King” Carney’s (Bryan Brown) henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, Faramir in Lord of the Rings).
She meets the hunky Drover (Hugh Jackman), a man whose name is his job, whose job is his name, and the sort of fictional Australian that actually says “Crikey” (q.v. Crocodile Dundee). Audience members interested in the beefcake factor will be delighted to see Jackman has built up his body to a size even bigger than for the Canadian mutant superhero Wolverine in three (soon to be four) X-Men films (although the neck-to-head ratio threatens to tip over into freakish territory). Lady Ashley also befriends the film’s narrator, the young “half-caste” boy Nullah (Brandon Walters). Nullah spent most of the movie thoroughly annoying the hell out of me as he shouts out the name “Drover! Yay Drover! Drover, Drover, Drover, yay!” over and over and over again. Ugh.
Nullah’s grandfather, a mystical Aboriginal known as King George (David Gulpilil), has been framed for Lord Ashley’s murder. He watches over Nullah from afar, and encourages him to become a storyteller. The fact that we are being told this story by a little boy to some degree explains and excuses the cast’s hammy mugging and how, on the whole, everyone seems to take death pretty well. After losing Lady Ashley’s husband and Nullah’s mother, our gang of heroes is only really upset by the death of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), an alcoholic collaborating with Carney. They are moved perhaps because he is given a chance to redeem himself right in front of them (as opposed to, say, an innocent person dying offscreen).
Lady Ashely finds she can make more money by tending the ranch and selling its cattle. Not to mention to effect a trifold moral victory: avenging her husband’s murder, beating the local monopoly, and righting a whole host of injustices made against the little boy. Nullah’s white father sexually exploited and murdered his mother, and if that weren’t trouble enough, the state wishes to abduct her and “breed the black out of her.” Such was official Australian policy until the 1970s; for a much better film along these themes see Phillip Noyce’s hugely affecting Rabbit Proof Fence (2002).
All this fuss and to-do is largely resolved and winds down about 1 hour and forty minutes in, the length of a typical movie. But Australia is no typical movie, and has about another hour and half to go. The happy surrogate family living together on the ranch must work itself all the way back up into an all-new conflict: the return of the villainous Fletcher for his revenge. The turmoil of World War II is reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience to the characters as they fight to restore their new makeshift family.
The movie is full of not-always-convincing computer-generated spectacle like cattle stampedes and Japanese kamikaze attacks. But one fleeting little shot caught my eye and reminded me why I like Luhrmann so much. Watch for a brief moment as a velvet curtain drops, and Luhrmann invisibly cuts to the reverse angle. Classy and cool.