Australia got panned before it was even released, because it stars Nicole Kidman- a fine actress and classic beauty- who made the mistake of marrying Tom Cruise, and thus earned the ire of entertainment rags everywhere. The film isn’t great; the visionary director Baz Luhrmann bites off more than he can chew, and the screenplay is badly constructed, but it is an enjoyable epic and a gorgeously filmed classic romance. It is overlong, but makes for a good “lazy Sunday” movie.
The story revolves around Lady Ashley (Kidman) whose husband was murdered, apparently by the rebel Aborigine King George, while he tried to build a cattle ranch in the outback near Darwin. He would be the only competition to King Carney (Brian Brown, F/X) in delivering beef to the Allied forces, and Carney has his head man Fletcher playing dirty to ensure his monopoly. Lady Ashley shows up to meet her guide- a gruff scoundrel known only as The Drover (Jackman)- and they are introduced while he’s in a bar fight, using her suitcase of unmentionables to bash a rowdy’s face in.
It’s the inauspicious meeting that always foreshadows a steamy affair, and Luhrmann wisely directs this classic tale with a wink or two. When they arrive at the Ashley ranch Far Away Downs, we meet a young “half-caste” boy named Nullah who tells her of Fletcher’s dirty dealings; so they help hide him from the coppers who will ship him to the Missions. If you didn’t know, many Aboriginal children, especially those of mixed race, were stolen from their mothers and shipped to missions that would “educate and breed the black out of them” up until 1973 in Australia. The best movie to learn about that is Rabbit Proof Fence, and things are handled with clumsy melodrama here.
But that is part of the point; we’ll see King George (David Gulpilil, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Proposition) and little Nullah do what can only be called magic, but it didn’t seem unbelievable or mystical to me. When Lady Ashley and the Drover join to drive 1500 cattle across the outback and beat King Carney out of his monopoly, they will be led across the desert to water, and stampeding cattle will be “sung down.” Many reviewers found this patronizing, but it’s no different than how Hollywood treats Native Americans as noble savages with mystical nature powers, and since the movie is set during World War 2 against the outback, it worked for me.
What did not work was the length and structure. After the cattle drive, we have another hour to go, as they want to tell us more and more about the Stolen Generations and how the Japanese bombed Australia. These are events worthy of our interest, but they belong throughout the story arc. As the movie stands it has two emotional climaxes- one when they complete the cattle drive, and another when Lady Ashley tries to save Nullah from the Mission, and the Japanese bombers. I would have liked it more if Nullah was taken during the drive, and they had to rescue him; and if the bombers came soon after the success of the drive. I kept falling asleep during the long third act and didn’t feel like I was missing much. I’d suggest Rabbit Proof Fence if you want to learn about the Stolen Generations. It has a much stronger emotional impact. As a 60’s-style epic, Australia is decent viewing, but not as cool as Baz Luhrmann’s other movies- Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet. Next week I’m watching a real Aussie movie, Young Einstein with Yahoo Serious, for 80’s Trash of the Week.