Director: Baz Luhrman
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown
Running Time: 165 minutes
Score: 7 / 10
This review by Sandra Hall of the Sydney Morning Herald.
NOTHING succeeds like excess. Oscar Wilde coined the phrase and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Baz Luhrmann has it embroidered on scatter cushions all over the house.
Not that he needs reminding. It is a mantra stamped on everything he does and Australia is the apotheosis. It has become the movie as superhero, charged with the job of rescuing the Australian film industry and giving us a new and shiny view of ourselves. And shiny it certainly is.
It’s also much too long at almost three hours, deliriously camp and shamelessly overdone – an outback adventure seen through the eyes of a filmmaker steeped in the theatrical rituals and hectic colours of old-fashioned showbiz. To quote Oklahoma, one of the few Hollywood classics not to lend its influence to Luhrmann’s style, or rather medley of styles, the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.
And so strong is his urge to celebrate the exoticism of old Australia that you half-expect to see the elephant, as well, lumbering across one of those majestic stretches of the Kimberley. Yet the film’s vigour and yes, its passion – that overused word – do engage you.
As you watch, memories of other movie moments flicker into view. The film’s orange skies conjure up Gone With The Wind. Yet Nicole Kidman’s transplanted English aristocrat, Lady Sarah Ashley, looks to be claiming kinship with Meryl Streep’s Karen Blixen in Out Of Africa.
Then the pitch changes again and she and Hugh Jackman as her rough-and-ready lover, the Drover, are embarking on unreliable imitations of a bickering Hepburn and Bogart in The African Queen.
But underpinning everything here is the ethos of the musical. David Hirschfelder’s score is so integral to the action that everybody seems perpetually on the brink of bursting into song. When Sarah, the Drover and their rag-tag band of riders decide to brave the odds to take 1500 cattle across the desert to Darwin, I was reminded of every Hollywood musical in which somebody has leapt up and said brightly: “Let’s put on a show and take it on the road.”
The film’s rapid changes of tone often make for a bumpy ride. Luhrmann has always had a taste for the cartoon and the opening scenes with their quick cuts, screen-filling close-ups and liberal use of slapstick, hark all the way back to Strictly Ballroom.
It is an effect that sits strangely with the lyricism of the film’s red and ochre expanses.
It is also tinged with condescension – as if were going to be looking down on the past as a place peopled exclusively by hams and buffoons. But it does make for some brisk passages of exposition.
Having come to the Northern Territory in search of her wayward husband, Lord Ashley, Sarah discovers first that she’s a widow. Then she rashly decides to take over her husband’s cattle station, Faraway Downs – a move that puts her up against Bryan Brown’s ruthless cattle baron, and his accomplice, played by David Wenham, laying on the deadpan menace with a lavish hand.
More important, she also forms a bond with Brandon Walters, doing an endearing job as Nullah, a mixed-blood Aboriginal boy, in danger of being forced into state care.
Anachronisms abound. Kidman and Jackman speak quaintly of doing a drove. There’s an action sequence that pushes the concept of the cliffhanger much further than it was ever meant to go, and Sarah’s romance with the Drover is rife with Mills & Boon moments.
There is even a role-reversal version of that much-loved romantic convention, the Makeover. This one has the Drover getting in touch with his inner-glamour boy by shaving off his beard and donning a white tuxedo to join his princess at the ball.
After the long, long lead-up, the big set-piece – the bombing of Darwin – seems oddly perfunctory, maybe because so much energy has been expended on the orgasmic task of bringing all plot strands to a simultaneous climax. But the agile camerawork bestows a dizzying sense of scale and distance. And once Kidman stops playing the easily shockable Victorian heroine, she and Jackman do start generating some heat, largely because they evoke a relationship which seems based on genuine affection.
As to whether the film is going to enjoy a success big enough to shed its radiance over the whole industry, who can say? I suspect the hype, and the budget, impose too heavy a load. A big-hearted melodrama, it takes a series of fascinating risks, some of which come off. But it’s no super-movie.
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