26 April 2009

Movie Review: Australia


2008, 158mins, PG-13
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer (s): Stuart Beattie, Baz Luhrmann, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan
Cast includes: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil
Release Date: 26th November 2008

Not everyone is going to enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s sweeping romantic epic “Australia”, a film built around the land of Oz during WW2. The picture in unapologetic in its scenes of romantic frivolity and patriotic love of the country, but never obnoxious, the spirited performances, lavish production design and well structured story keep the entire enterprise consistently enjoyable. Granted it’s a cut below a number of efforts from 2008 but it’s also a film deserving of more praise than it got, only a true cynic would fail to buy into the unbridled love on show here. No matter, a film this intensely watchable is bound to discover a sizable audience on DVD and maybe transform itself into a genre classic.

Baz Luhrmann developed the project over a four year period, more than twice the time a normal feature would take to go from pre to post production. “Australia” is however far from an ordinary effort, the story sprawls over the countries beautiful backdrop and each frame seems to have been lovingly and neurotically composed by its helmer. This sort of sheer devotion to a project will always help paper over some of its flaws, and in the case of “Australia” it’s Luhrmann’s determination that really elevates it above its peers.

The film is told from the perspective of half-caste boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), a native of the Ashley ranch. After the death of her husband Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) comes from England to take control of his ranch in Australia, and ensure that his cattle are sold and she turns a final profit on her husband’s business. In doing this she draws the scorn of local beef mogul King Carney (Bryan Brown), a man desperate to take her stock and gain complete control of the beef industry in the Northern territory. Initially he had used his right hand man and employee of Ashley, Fletcher (David Wenham) to ensure he maintained a tight grip on the market but after uncovering Fletcher’s true loyalties Sarah fires him instantly. Thus she is left in a conundrum, how to move her stock across the country’s vast landscapes and sell them to the army in time. She turns to Drover (Hugh Jackman) a rugged, reckless but charming individual who specializes in herding and moving animals. Together Sarah, Drover, Nullah and other individuals begin to take the mighty beasts cross the land, and on the way romance brews between Sarah and Drover whilst an unlikely family dynamic begins involving them and the recently orphaned Nullah.

In terms of pure cinematic escapism I struggle to think of many films more befitting of those two words than “Australia” a remarkably entertaining and engaging love story set against some beautifully photographed landscapes. Many people have compared the film to Michal Bay’s phenomenally dull “Pearl Harbor”, a film that also aimed to pit love and adventure against a historical time of great significance. However whilst “Pearl Harbor” is just as technically proficient it lacks the genuine emotion and warmth that fill “Australia”. Bay’s film was just explosions and superficial romance, Luhrmann’s is an all conquering and deeply touching quest across the country he so blatantly loves.

As Sarah I was pleased to see Nicole Kidman once again able to deliver a good performance in a good movie. In recent years Kidman has given perfectly serviceable turns but her choice of project has been weak, whether it be the disappointing likes of “The Golden Compass” or the sheer awfulness of “Bewitched”. Finally the talented actress has stumbled back into a project worthy of her talents, and she delivers a sympathetic and nicely evolved performance as the female half of the central duo. Jackman also delivers the goods, he’s reserved yet charismatic as Drover, and together he and Kidman share decent chemistry. They may both be phenomenally good looking people but the movie presents them as more than just pretty exteriors, another aspect that separates it from “Pearl Harbor”. As Nullah newcomer Brandon Walter’s is nothing short of outstanding, he narrates with vigor and creates a child who the audience genuinely like, without the filmmakers having to make him cloyingly sweet. Rounding out the key figures both Bryan Brown and David Wenham do good work, but in truth the pictures uses them more as plot devices than anything else. This is a movie based around the budding relationships at its heart, the cattle subplot and the various villains are simply there to add a little extras meat to proceedings.

Anyone with an appreciation of epic romance or good quality love stories should take to “Australia” mighty easily, Luhrmann constructs a relationship that the audience cares about and which has more emotional resonance than 90% of the alternatives on the market. I really can think of few better date movies to come along in the last year, the captivating story that “Australia” depicts really does feel like the best of the bunch. Those concerned about the films longish runtime also need not fear, even though it clocks in at nearly 160 minutes “Australia” holds the audience for virtually every moment of its generous length.

Visually of course it’s a stunner, never has the outback looked so magnificently gorgeous as it does in Luhrmann’s devoted epic. The camera tracks across the landscape frequently revealing the beautiful sights and magnificent sounds of such a unique country, in many ways it marks the perfect setting for such an idealistic and joyous romance. At times what CGI and greenscreen are deployed seem a little obvious and dodgy, but audience members will feel almost instantly compensated when the next sweeping and superbly photographed landscape shot arrives.

I struggle to understand how many critics have been vitriolic in their hate for the movie; apparently such gleeful and whole hearted entertainment won’t cut it in today’s depressingly black and cynical world. Still I thought it was pretty marvelous and despite a few flaws truly find it a big budget piece of spectacle worth celebrating. I can only hope that a few more directors take a leaf out of Luhrmann’s book and remember film can be loving and fun. Indeed I might debate that’s the very type I and many others probably like best.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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