I’d like to preface my review of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia with some discussion of the film’s context. I’m generally not a fan of blockbuster films nor epics, and Australia is both. I’m quite selective about the media previews I attend, as time is usually an issue and, unlike a general cinema screening, you can’t select your session. There are a number of reasons that I went out of my way to see Australia.
Luhrmann has been particularly ambitious with Australia. While it’s not a genre of film that usually interests me, the project he has embarked upon has a significance beyond the film itself. Luhrmann is attempting a breakthrough film, something that hasn’t really been attempted. He’s taking on Hollywood on its own terms, playing their game, and attempting to win over both the local audience and ultimately an international audience.
Luhrmann wants Australians to change how they look at local films. People often roll their eyes when it comes to Australian films. I know, I often do it myself. He is unashamedly putting our culture (or a reimagining of it) before us and saying, “let’s be proud of our culture, of our way, of our stories… let’s change the perception that ‘Australian film’ means ‘boring’.” For this, I admire him.
The reimagining of our culture may be a total fantasy, but if the uniqueness of Australian culture is imbued/imbibed, in a way that we can feel good about ourselves, and have a good time, then that’s got to be a something good.
But wait, didn’t this film cost something like $130 million to make? No local film can recoup that kind of serious moolah; Luhrmann has clearly made this film for a global (or at least a US) audience, of which conquering the Australian market is just one step in a larger battle plan. The marketing of the film has been inspired by the Hollywood model. This film was being hyped before filming had even started some two years ago. Even the film’s title is an audacious emulation of American-style movie-marketing, which often proudly proclaims “America-this”, “New York-that” or just plain “Chicago”, “Philadelphia”, etc.
I’ve spoken personally to local directors, as well as questioned others at post-film Q&As. I have concluded that generally, foreign distributors are only interested in Australian films that enable them to market our films with just the type of clichés that Paul Hogan exploited with Crocodile Dundee, for example. I sense that Luhrmann is going for broke with Australia, crafting a film that is designed to appeal to as wide a global audience as possible, and perhaps through its desired success, lead a resurgence of interest in Australian films overseas. Much of the Australian film industry could reap the benefits if this strategy is successful. Again, I laud this attempt. For these reasons, I decided that Australia was a film I wanted to see, regardless of whether I like it or not. So, the verdict?
I like it, a lot. On most (but not all) accounts, Australia beats Hollywood at its own game. It uses over-the-top caricatures like those in Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom to excellent comedic effect, with Spielberg-like family adventure (think Indiana Jones) and blends in indigenous themes used in Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence and the magic and story-telling in Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes. All this with an aesthetic that also recalls epics like Gone With the Wind. The result is a great romp that both reinforces and reimagines Australian mythology.
The film looks absolutely fantastic, with excellent use of the widescreen to frame the landscape and the characters. I’m familiar with the area in which the film was shot, and I’ve often commented on how beautiful it is. For example, it’s great to see boab trees depicted, which are specific to the Kimberleys. The film is a joy to watch.
There is more CGI in use than one can detect. I’m not a big fan of CGI, but I didn’t feel it detracted from the film (like it did in say, Lord of the Rings, which relied on it way too heavily). It doesn't draw attention to itself and is used to support the film, as it should.
Some critics bemoan the clichés. Oh for fucksake, the whole film is one giant cliché and that's an intrinsic part of its appeal. This is fantasy, it's caricature, it's over the top, it's what people expect of a blockbuster. Others have commented on the use of the word “crikey” as if it’s a Steve Irwin rip-off. I find this petty nitpicking. Crikey is a term I grew up with; my mum used it all the time, and its use was much more common in previous times. I think Luhrmann is effectively tapping into that Banjo Patterson sort of Australian mythology, with a kind of cheeky wink at Irwin without resorting to Irwin’s buffoon-like use of the word.
When Nicole Kidman’s character is first introduced, it is with an over-acted performance that I initially cringed at. Kidman-haters will have a field day with this. However, when the same scene is replayed from a different perspective, it then seemed quite in context. From that point on, I had no problems with her acting at all, and am impressed with her ability to do comedy. By the way, that trailer that had Kidman doing that “whoosh” thing really didn’t do the film justice. I had no problems when that scene played out.
I generally don’t like Hugh Jackman as an actor, but he played the part of The Drover with gusto and was perfect for the role. My favourite characters are Nullah (Brandon Walters), the young aboriginal boy from whose perspective the film’s story is told, and King George (David Gulpilil), the boy’s grandfather who plays an almost guardian angel-type role for the boy. Their stories are the most moving and I love what Luhrmann has done with these characters.
There’s an extensive support cast that includes Jack Thompson (in one of his best roles in a long time), Tony Barry (as a dead-ringer for Chips Rafferty), David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Barry Otto, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Barrett, Bill Hunter, John Jarratt, among many others.
“Here I am, this blockbuster-sneering film-snob, getting caught up in the emotions of a highly contrived film. Luhrmann must be doing something right”The film is unashamedly sentimental. You know where the film is going, you know you’re being manipulated, yet I still couldn’t help shedding a tear at all the right spots. Here I am, this blockbuster-sneering film-snob, getting caught up in the emotions of a highly contrived film. Luhrmann must be doing something right.
I only had four hours sleep last night and was a bit concerned whether I'd stay awake for the 165 minutes. The film captured my attention and I didn't nod off at all, though there was a flat spot mid-way. This was when the film reaches a kind of natural conclusion, the end of a chapter. Then the film’s main flaws kick in. It goes into epic-mode and, in doing so, loses the momentum and coherency of the first half. It also loses some of the comedic edge.
Luhrmann was reportedly working on the editing of the film right up to the night before the film’s premiere. I can guess the parts he was working on, and it didn’t seem as well put together as the first half. It’s probably too late for Australian audiences, but hopefully the studio will allow Luhrmann to tweak the film before it is released overseas. I didn’t find these flaws by any means fatal, but I’m sure it’s what some critics will focus on.
In conclusion, Luhrmann has crafted a film that demands a viewing, and it really needs to be seen on the big screen. It will appeal to a wide audience and I’m sure my 8-year old will enjoy it immensely. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of adventure, good old-fashioned story-telling. It’s contains some nice messages, without being preachy or ramming political correctness down our throats. It succeeds in being unashamedly entertaining, poking fun at Australian mythology while also reinforcing and reimagining it. I enjoyed the film much more than I expected. I’m sure it will do well here, and hopefully it will do well overseas.