Saturday, November 29, 2008
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman
David Wenham, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil,
Jack Thompson, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Brandon Walters
Remember the days when films were advertised as “movie shows” and studio productions boasted “having it all”?
Days when movie stars were photographed in beautiful, glossy light that made them look otherworldly? Days when there were “movie stars” to begin with. Well, those days are back, at least during the running time of Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular “Australia”.
After a seven year hiatus, the visionary auteur, who seems to have a thing for neglected movie genres and styles, takes on yet another cause: the reinvention of the historical epic.
Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat who travels to Australia looking for her husband in 1939.
After reaching the wild continent she meets one of her husband’s workers, a mysterious, tough man who everyone calls the Drover (Jackman). Once they reach “Far Away Downs”, her husband’s farm, which lies deep in the outback, she discovers he’s been murdered (no gasps here considering one should only use common sense to know that Jackman and Kidman will obviously become romantically involved in a film where they have top billing).
She also finds her estate is being tampered with by the greedy Neil Fletcher (Wenham) who is in league with the competitor cattle baron, King Carney (Brown).
Sarah first wonders what would’ve made her husband fight so much for something that to her seems an unnecessary risk, until she meets Nullah (Walters) a “creamie” (half aboriginal, half white) child who becomes suddenly orphaned and is being searched for by the authorities to be placed under government “care”.
Lady Ashley takes a liking for Nullah and this newfound knowledge of the vast injustices in the land inspires her to finish her husband’s work and, along with the reluctant Drover, deliver almost two thousand cows cross country to Darwin and stop Carney’s enterprise.
Lurhmann’s ambitious plot, combines the WWII background and the country’s racist history with the intention of encompassing everything the nation is about.
Paying homage to classics of the genre, the first part of the film feels like “The Sundowners” meets “Giant” going by way of “The African Queen” as the characters face danger and adventure in the form of cattle stampedes, wild sandstorms, fires and even a bit of aboriginal magic by the way of Nullah’s grandfather, tribe elder King George (Gulpilil).
There isn’t a single frame in “Australia” that doesn’t demand to be seen, Mandy Walker’s luscious cinematography (reminiscent of “Out of Africa”) is both in love and in awe of the country it captures.
Her camera sometimes feels as if it’s about to burst open trying to take everything in at once. In smaller moments, aided by CGI, the look is straight out of a Technicolor newsreel with vintage postcard strokes.
The whole cast is great, even if they know for a fact that they are not the main event. Kidman at first has a hard time fitting into the slight camp the film kicks off with, but soon enough (and after looking more beautiful than ever while covered in sweat and dirt) the usually cold actress radiates a sense of maternal warmth she’d never conveyed before.
She may be no Vivien Leigh, but unlike the other members of the ensemble, her performance is the one that doesn’t rely on any reference to become what it is.
Jackman, looking impossibly handsome, evokes Indiana Jones, Clint Eastwood and Cary Grant! He effortlessly moves between these personas and balancing the crass and the class, while flexing his muscles and romancing Kidman, is not something easy to pull off.
Wenham is as vicious as the bad guys in “Shane”, the incomparable Jacek Koman steals every moment he’s onscreen and Mendelsohn as the stern Captain Dutton provides the film with an unexpected sense of calm.
The find here is of course Walters, who it seems escapes every child actor cliché to deliver a beautiful performance of someone trapped between two worlds.
His narration helps hint that the film is perhaps a symbolic coming-of-age tale of the country where it takes place, which through the years has been marginalized (just consider how it was founded…) and become object of jokes (Baz has a ball playing with Aussie clichés to convey a sense of farce).
Working on this film Baz had the intention of creating his country’s very own “Gone With the Wind” and like the 1939 American epic (cinematic year which highly influenced this film) it acknowledges the racist roots both countries were built upon, but does so without losing hope for the future.
Fascinated by aboriginal mysticism, there are various customs revealed throughout the film, one of them being that once a person dies you can not say their name again; theory that is able to keep the memory while looking forward, in the same way Baz looks at his country.
Not as extravagantly stylized as his “Red Curtain Trilogy” (although some elements can be rightly called trademarks), this project gives the director the chance to broaden his storytelling horizons.
Because “Australia” is first and foremost about the art of storytelling. One of the aboriginal traditions portrayed in the film is that of passing along knowledge through stories.
Borrowing elements, and to a degree the structure, of Victor Fleming’s “The Wizard of Oz”, Luhrmann’s desire is that his country will also be part of history.
During one of the film’s greatest moments, Nullah asks Lady Ashley to sing, after bursting into a self-conscious version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, the boy giggles as he affirms that she is a funny singer, but the song is just too good.
The same goes for the director; if “Australia” feels overwhelming it’s because it is, but instead of being referred to as an undertaking, which implies burdens, Baz makes it feel like a love song that simply can not be contained.
Grabbing plot twists, characters and situations as varied as the country itself, “Australia” is a sort of imperfectly perfect masterpiece. It wants to be everything at once, but is at its best when it just lets go.
Nowadays when the musical score rises and the characters are put in unfathomable situations the audience will simply role their eyes and giggle, here we are swept off our feet.
It’s not every day that you feel your heart will come out of your chest when a movie reaches its climax. With “Australia” Baz Luhrmann has proved that he is the real wizard of Oz.