It Works...Eventually in Baz Luhrmann's Latest Epic
Two hours into writer/director Baz Luhrmann's reprehensible Australia, an older aboriginal man stands silently gazing at the deplorable display of civilized man's existence as flying machines drop bombs onto a city and hospitals! and cars! and men! and women! and children! run and scream and hopes and dreams and lives and everything explodes! into a million little pieces. It's 1942 and the Japanese have bombed Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory, with an attack the history books compare to Pearl Harbor, an act that drags the country into World War II. But in a flabbergasting display of hubris, ambition, or plain old-fashioned stupidity, Luhrmann watches this carnage through the eyes of an original Australian, a man who hails from the rich cultures that lived on this land long before Dutch explorers "discovered" it in 1606 and the British claimed it and eventually settled it as a penal colony in 1788. No, Australia wants you to understand that it's telling a story about the genuine people of this great land. And to see that story all you have to do is ignore the cheap, tawdry melodrama revolving around white people that occupies most of its 165 minutes.
If only Australia were a cheap, tawdry melodrama trying to do nothing more than titillate and manipulate the emotions. Instead, it's an expensive, moralistic melodrama out to right wrongs by dramatizing the Stolen Generation, those children of the aboriginal (and Torres Strait Islander) women and white colonizers who were considered half caste, mixed-race offspring the government considered neither indigenous nor white, and who were taken from their parents, rounded up by law enforcement, and placed with missionaries to facilitate their assimilation into proper society. Aboriginals were protected by the government; half castes were passively barred from many aspects of society-- such as movie theaters (or so says this movie) divided into whites and aboriginal sections left no space for the half caste. And Luhrmann drops the incomprehensible weight of this cultural baggage onto the frail shoulders of Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half caste young boy with dinner-plate wide eyes.
He's the young whippersnapper who provides Australia's voice over, trapped by birth to straddle aboriginal culture (his grandfather is a renown elder named King George [David Gulpilil]) and the colonizers, such as the British cattleman who runs Faraway Downs. Luhrmann kills that respectable Englishman off before you even catch his name, bringing his wife, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), all the way from merry olde to see what her husband has been up to in such a godforsaken wilderness. She presumes he, like every other white man in Australia, sates his baser instincts with the local women.
Turns out he was just trying to bust the local monopoly of King Carney (Bryan Brown), a rancher trying to strike it rich by being the only beef supplier to the army on that side of the globe. Carney and his oily henchman/future son-in-law, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), tried stealing Lord Ashley's fattest cattle when he was around and wants to strong arm Lady Ashley to sell her land and herd now that he's dead. They didn't count on the British lady to be so forthright, nor that she might have so easily developed a working relationship with an aboriginal-friendly drifter named Drover (Hugh Jackman).
Yes, that's right: the majority of Australia is pure Western, complete with cattle drives, bronco breaking, barroom brawls, rounding up a rag-tag crew in an effort to do the impossible, and expansive shots in wide, open spaces. It's admittedly gorgeous in parts, and some set pieces--such as a stampede hurtling toward a cliff face--are fairly stirring, even with the obvious CGI effects. But every time you feel yourself almost seduced by the big, dumb entertainment, Luhrmann anvil-drops some callous reach for poignancy into the movie, from the overbearing use of The Wizard of Oz as a leitmotif to the inherent benevolent mysticism of indigenous peoples to heart-string-pulling score cues to the positively insulting back stories he gives his characters. Sarah is a widow who can't have children, Drover is a widower whose aboriginal wife died before they had kids, and, conveniently, there's a mixed-raced child running around in need of parenting. And, yes, eventually love will bloom and wither, friendships will be challenged, humanity will be put to the test, and alright then, they'll go to hell and go against the proverbial grain because even though that's the way it is doesn't mean it should be so.
Or something like that. Were Australia content to stumble through narrative and emotional clichés it wouldn't be any more or less harmlessly offensive than any other big, stupid movie. Luhrmann, though, has something to say, and he aims for humanity at its best by resorting to it at its very worst. Now, perhaps being an American makes this reviewer knee-jerk reactionary to American racial politics that don't necessarily apply the world over, but surely putting Nullah in blackface so that he can go watch The Wizard of Oz in Darwin might be considered distasteful no matter where you call home.
And it's this desultory mix of opportunistic ideas that makes Australia so vile. Luhrmann's revisionist fantasy concludes with title cards saying that the Australian government--who apparently didn't get the memo about how after you exploit your indigenous populations with pestilence and liquor you grant them second-class status by gifting them land they already own and casinos--discontinued its policy of forced assimilation for the children of miscegenation in 1973 and how, in 2008, the government formally apologized for this mistreatment. How awfully white of them.