Baz Luhrmann’s Australia deserves credit for attempting to bring back the old-fashioned, slow-burn romance set within Big Historical Events, but the narrative is such an unfocused mess and so overwhelms what works that you can’t ever grasp hold of the thing. Just when you think you’ve solved what the movie’s about it grinds gears, switches up antagonists, turns subplot into plot, and leaves you with the feeling — not that you’ve witnessed the grand and terrible history of a continent, but rather a filmmaker’s undisciplined, kitchen-sinking of spectacle at the expense of story.
The year is 1939 and Nicole Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat forced for financial and personal reasons to Australia. Upon arrival she faces the harsh reality that her only hope of staving off bankruptcy is to drive thousands of cattle over thousands of unforgiving miles in order to sell them to the military. Helping her to fail is King Carney (Bryan Brown), one of those cinematic land barons who always want more land. Slowly he’s been siphoning off her cattle, branding them as his own, and planting his men as hands on her ranch. Naturally, they quit before the drive is to begin which forces her to beg Drover (Hugh Jackman) for help.
Drover’s one of those, rugged, earthy, independent types who doesn’t much care for mannerly, stuck ups whose first names start with “Lady.” He also doesn’t have the crew necessary to handle a large cattle drive. But with the promise of a beautiful horse as a reward and with the help of a few Aborigine, a Chinese cook, an old drunk, and Nullah (Brandon Walters), a young boy who’s half-Aborigine/half white, Drover agrees.
Before you can say the cattle drive is over the cattle drive is over and the whole story then lurches off into a white, liberal guilt soap opera about Nullah and Australia’s shameful practice of removing mixed blood Aborigine from their homes to be trained as domestic servants — a subject Phillip Noyce documented with much more intelligence in 2002’s Rabbit-Proof Fence. A third lurch takes us right into the CGI’d bombing of Darwin by the Japanese just weeks after Pearl Harbor.
An ambitious film eager to cover sweeping historical events must keep a laser like focus on its characters and their relationships. This keeps the narrative thread from breaking and the story grounded in something the audience can hang onto. Dr. Zhivago (1965) is not about the Russian Revolution, it’s about the relationship between Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Every big event portrayed in that classic was designed around bringing our lovers together or tearing them apart. El Cid (1961) is about the love story between Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, and how legends are created. The spectacle is always about moving those balls, not the other way around.
Australia’s relationships and characters are just too simple and one-dimensional to survive the film’s spectacle. Imagine the Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant characters from Bringing Up Baby plopped into Spartacus (1960) or The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). That’s Australia, and that’s where Australia fails. Thousands of extras and large sets do not make or break an epic, it’s the largess of the characters and their personal growth, it’s the complications of the inter-relationships. This is where your central theme forms and if Australia has a central theme I couldn’t find it.
Drover’s dimensions are never beyond that of a charming rogue with commitment issues and Lady Ashley moves (too quickly, in my opinion) from the single dimension of “put upon” to the single dimension of Earth Mother. As expected, the two of them fall in love but nothing brought on by the CGI has anything to do with keeping them apart. He just likes to wander — which is something he could do in a low-budget film.
Most grating is that at every opportunity the movie demands we stop and take notice of the evah so important racial issues of the day. You can practically feel Luhrmann patting himself on the back for shaming any of us who dare to be both Western and white. In reality, however, he does his non-white cast no favors by making them even less interesting than the main players. Anyone with skin darker than Michael Jackson is boringly drawn as noble and wise and honorable. Yawn. These aren’t human beings, they’re every bit as much of a symbol as a cigar store Indian.
It’s the same with Aboriginal customs. Everything they do, practice, believe in, and say is dutifully wise, dully superior, thuddingly wonderful… After a couple of hours of this simple-minded silliness you just want to leave the theatre and exterminate that menace to all things good known as white people.
Some of the story just makes no sense. After Drover and Sarah are together she’s still menaced and threatened by those determined to steal her land and yet Drover’s never made a part of that plot thread. No explanation is given as to why she doesn’t tell him, why he doesn’t know, or why the expected scene of him confronting the corporate bullies never arrives. It’s another example of how the plot’s constantly being muscled to get to the CGI instead of unrolling in an honest and believable way.
As far as the performances go, Kidman’s Kidman: cold and distant even when she wants to be warm and approachable. Her haughty first-act act is unbearably bad, but she ends up settling down nicely. Jackman isn’t given much to work with when it comes to his character but he’s about 15% short of that rugged quality to believably pull a role like this off. Even though I couldn’t quite grasp his character, Bryan Brown seems to be having a good time as The Bad Guy, but as Nullah, twelve year old Brandon Walters gives a remarkably natural and confident performance.
In every respect — tone, story, acting, plot coherence, character introductions — the first act of Australia is a disaster. The rest of the way is up and down, but ultimately watchable because it is so big and never unpleasant to look at. The visual splash isn’t as memorable as Luhrmann’s past films, but it suits the story and terrain fine, which might be the only disciplined element of the entire messy affair.