Saturday, 29 November 2008
Forget the hype – here's all you need to know about Australia: there's wobble board on the soundtrack. There's also John Butler playing guitar, which does kind of suggest that The Angels, Smokey Dawson, The Hilltop Hoods and Kylie might have got a look-in during the editing process, but it's the wobble board's appearance – brief though it may be – that sums up this film. How can you take seriously a film about Australia that has a wobble board on the soundtrack? How can a film that's meant to be a Gone With the Wind-style sweeping saga of passion set against the backdrop of both history and a timeless land possibly work if you can't take it seriously? You can't, and it doesn't.
At first it's not even clear that this film has ambitions beyond being the kind of broad knockabout comedy that died out with Welcome to Woop Woop. Uptight English noblewoman comes to Australia circa 1939 and is shocked by the crudity of the outback? Check. Rough-hewn Aussie roustabout gets in bar fight defending the natives then takes his shirt off? Check. Bill Hunter cameo? Check. A more charitable reviewer – and lord knows there's plenty of them about, as the rare combo of a local production and serious money has resulted in more than the usual amount of fawning from the usual entertainment reporters – would call this "playing to the American market". They'd be wrong. Even the most dim-witted American would spot this guff as cliches played for comedy, and it's only Aussie pride that could possibly prevent anyone from seeing what's going on here: writer / director Baz Lurhmann is taking the piss.
This isn't automatically a bad thing. A movie-length version of Kath & Kim set in the outback could be well worth checking out. But as the romance between Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and The Drover (Hugh Jackman) - set against the backdrop of a vast untamed land, naturally - progresses we get a brand new load of cliches and the trouble really begins. In every film he's made since Strictly Ballroom Lurhmann has proven himself to be both a master of spectacle and close to useless when it comes to creating living, breathing characters. In his earlier films, that wasn't much of a problem; even the pointless mess that was Moulin Rouge had enough music blaring to keep you distracted from the sub-cartoon characters. But here, where despite his best efforts to create a tourist ad the romance between Sarah and The Drover is what we're interested in, the fact that both of them are nothing more than cardboard cut-outs is a lead weight around this film.
Lurhmann tries to give himself an out by telling us up front that what we're seeing is the past viewed through the eyes of Nullah (the charismatic Brandon Walters) the pre-teen Aboriginal "creamy", (his father was white, his mother black) who narrates the film. He's a kid: no wonder his view of what's going on is simplistic. And the parts of the film that directly concern Nullah as he struggles to find a place for himself as he's stuck between two worlds are easily the most interesting and affecting parts of the film. But if he's the one we're supposed to be paying attention to, why cast the two biggest Australian actors around? And if the big names are where our eyes are drawn, why not give them actual characters to play?
This kind of garbled approach runs throughout the film – well, the parts of the film that are actually important if you're supposed to be telling a story. The fact that Lady Ashley seemingly packs a funeral dress for a trip to meet her husband in a country where she doesn't know anyone else, or that she shacks up with The Drover for years but never learns his actual name are just symptoms of a film where the surface is everything and the film-makers just aren't that interested in large chunks of their own film. Take the air raid on Darwin: what should have been a dramatic high point is instead basically a minute's worth of out-takes from Pearl Harbor as Darwin is revealed to be full of dropkicks who just stare stupidly at a wave of attacking planes instead of running away or shooting back. Ok, that's what they did in Pearl Harbor (the movie), but that was a surprise attack. Australia's been at war for over two years at this stage of the movie: a bit less gawking and a bit more running would seem to be the order of the day.
So if the characters are wafer-thin and the story is cobbled together from pages torn from The Bumper Book of Historical Romance, is there anything actually worth watching here? Well, there is a pretty exciting cattle stampede that's halted by magic Aboriginal singing, plus a lot of references to The Wizard of Oz that link "Somewhere over the Rainbow" with the rainbow serpent. It'd be tempting to dismiss this kind of thing as patronizing, but this film has to get its magic from somewhere – there certainly isn't any happening between Kidman and Jackman. And who knows? Maybe the aborigines summoned up the Japanese airforce to punish the white man for their part in the Stolen Generations.
Still, you can't deny the title is spot-on. Not only does Australia feature pretty much every Australian actor alive (Jack Thompson! David Wenham! Bruce Spence! Ben Mendlesohn! Jeff Jarrett!), but it also seems to self-conciously reference large chunks of Australian film history. There's a beat-up car like something out of Mad Max 2, a running character's death that echoes Galipoli, and a hand trailing through grain straight from (honorary Aussie) Russell Crowe's Gladiator. Sadly, there didn't seem to be any obvious references to Alvin Purple – perhaps they'll be in the director's cut.
The strange thing is, all the hype seemed to be setting audiences up to expect a completely different kind of dud. Heavy hints were dropped that Lurhmann had created an overly populist film that would portray Australia as a true-blue land of bonza blokes and top shelias, not what he’s actually delivered: something that too often feels like a costume designer's half-arsed film adaptation of a bad mid-90s protest play. Still, approach this in the right frame of mind and there's plenty to keep you awake, like the scene where a bunch of American trucks – we know they're American because they're flying the American flag – are shown driving across the outback only to never be mentioned again. What's all that about?
Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #442)