Friday, December 26, 2008
Movie Review: Australia
I headed out on Christmas Eve to ensure that I got a chance to see Australia before it shipped out of theatres with the deluge of new holiday films the next day. To be truthful, I am a fan of director Baz Luhrman. I thought his version of Moulin Rouge! was fantastic, unlike any other film that was being made. It also helped bring about the return of the musical which I thought was overdue.
I had some concerns going into the film having read some of the previous reviews of the movie as well as learning about its extended 2 hours 45 minutes running time. Commercially it flopped not making back its money and many critics who had figured it to call for a few Oscar nods were now panning it. Still I knew that if I didn't see it by Christmas Eve, it would be gone, lost in a wave of other potentially good films.
Australia is set in 1939, several months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the onset of World War 2. It is the story of Lady Sarah Ashley, played by Nicole Kidman, who decides that it is time for her to leave her posh life in England and head Down Under to bring home her wayward husband. Lord Ashley himself is working on the beef farm they own, called Faraway Downs, and is trying to make it the commercial success everyone believes it can be. Upon her arrival in Australia, she is greeted by a man named Drover, played by Hugh Jackman. Drover is a rough and tumble man of the Outback, who prides himself on being his own boss and specializes in driving cattle. On the promise of driving 1500 cattle to market by the ranch's foreman, Neil Fletcher (played by David Wenham, he agrees to escort Lady Ashley to Faraway Downs.
Unbeknown to either the Ashley's' or Drover, is that Fletcher is secretly in the employ of King Carney (Bryan Brown) who controls all the rest of the ranch's' in the area. In an effort to monopolize the market, Carney is skimming money and bulls away from Faraway Downs. Upon Lady Ashley's arrival to the ranch, she finds her husband has been murdered, allegedly by a local Aborigine named King George. Distraught, Lady Ashley believes selling the ranch to be her best option, until a local boy of mixed black and white heritage named Nullah (played by newcomer Brandon Walters) shows her the truth. That Fletcher is a liar and that Carney is stealing from her.
Striking a bargain with Drover, she decides to keep the ranch and help Drover drive the cattle to market and undercut King Carney at the bid for supplying the English Armies beef. Together with Nullah, they drive the herd in and along the way, begin to fall in love. Ashley becomes especially protective of Nullah, who being of mixed heritage is at danger of being sent off to a "camp" for half breeds, as was the practice of the time.
Drover and Ashley must fend off continued attacks by Carney and then Fletcher as the outbreak of World War 2 hits Australia, forcing them apart. When Nullah disappears, a rift forms between the two lovers. Ashley to her duty to the ranch and her perceived new family and Drover for his need to be unfettered. He also believes that Nullah should be allowed to go on a walkabout, a vision quest to find his own song, or story. Lady Ashley looks at him as the boy she must protect. When he does disappear, the two split.
As the war rages on, Drover eventually realizes what he wants and returns to find Lady Ashley and Nullah, only to find the Japanese have struck first.
Australia is a great epic film, the kind of films that are not made anymore. Two parts western, one part war film, and one part fairy tale romance, it reminded me of great films like Gone With the Wind or Ben Hur, or for a more modern example Titanic. Movies that are meant to be experienced. Luhrman draws on the classical elements of cinema, even using scenes and songs from The Wizard of Oz to remind us of the magic of film.
I thought the movie was great. The storyline has something for everyone. Unlike Luhrman's previous work, like Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet, he creates a movie that so female centric. Let me clarify that. Most guys don't like Moulin Rouge! because of the sentimentality or the singing, its simply not manly to watch it. With Australia he finds that common ground. Like in Gone With the Wind, you have action and war and real cowboy stuff, but underneath it there is a real story with emotion.
The cinematograpghy is simply fantastic. Epic scope and scale, brightly lit vistas in verdant color, the dichotomy of dress and look in Kidman as her porcelain look meets Jackman's rugged masculinity. Some of the Western shots looked right out of a John Ford movie, where the scenery is as much an element of the film as the actor or director is. The movie has that sense of magic that comes with all of Luhrman's works, the kind of magic you know that no other director has. Where they film something in such a way as to give even the most mundane thing life. Here he bridges that with the harsh and desolate life of the Outback, and in it creates a world of light and dark, and color. Beautiful.
The casting is spot on to. Kidman may have had the hardest part, in some instances she does come across as a bit cornball, but her manic energy and presence in the other scenes far out way those moments. Jackman provides the right blend of frustration and action. I like that Lurhman cast two actors well known for their ties with Australia, it added a bit of concrete realism in the world he created. I especially liked Brandon Walter as Nullah. He played the part extremely well as a boy caught between two worlds, blending fear and hope together so seamlessly. Especially for his first film! Finally David Wenham brings just the right amount of menace and Australian sleaze to his role as Fletcher, creating a character you genuinely despise.
While many may find fault with the running time, I was okay with it. It felt a bit like watching two movies though. The epic western introduction and then the World War 2 battle after that. It was bridged nicely by the fairy tale romance between the two though. Honestly after two days I can't find much fault with the film.
It just felt nice to see a modern film with such classic sentiment. To often modern cinema forgoes the classic appeal of well written, well made movies to churn out a new blockbuster. Though I like a big budget popcorn movie as much as anyone, its also nice to see that those kinds of budgets can go to making something special like Australia.
The beginning of this movie, the narrator (Nullah) informs us that he is going to tell us a story. For everyone has to find their life's story. He sets out to tell you a grand story, and he succeeds. Go see this film. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Baz Luhrman's Australia.
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