Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: Australia

"Australia" inspires one of the oldest cliches in the book, used by critics for many years now: They don't make 'em like this anymore. It's true, though. Very few filmmakers would be able to get away with making a costume epic that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a theater in the 1940s, with a massive budget. Then again, Baz Luhrmann isn't your everyday filmmaker. The mad mind behind the retelling of "Romeo + Juliet" and the remake of "Moulin Rouge," Luhrmann has made a name for himself by tweaking the tropes of Old Hollywood and repackaging them for a modern audience that wouldn't know who Clark Gable is if you asked them on the street.

The film has been slammed by critics as a misfire, a failure of grand proportions. I couldn't disagree more. I think that in order to fully appreciate the film, you have to understand exactly what it's doing. That is to say, you have to embrace the cliched nature of the thing and work from there. The film is the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a spirited high-society English type who storms off to pre-WWII Australia to retrieve her husband from the cattle ranch they own. Her husband arranges for her to be escorted by Drover (Hugh Jackman) a (wait for it...) cattle drover with a fondness for brawling and for the aboriginal culture of the Australian wilderness. He and Sir Ashley are looked down upon by the nobility of the country for hiring natives to work on the ranch, due to the racism still heavily prevalent at the time.

Upon reaching the ranch, Lady Ashley finds her husband dead, and this sets off a sprawling adventure, in which she tries to save the cattle ranch from the Carney company, which holds the monopoly on Australia save for her ranch, Faraway Downs. She also has to deal with her budding attraction to Drover, and also protect a young half-aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), who is in danger due to a law that actually existed in Australia at the time, and continued to do so all the way up until 1973, which allowed natives to be shipped to missions and be domesticated in the "white" way, so that they could live as servants to nobility.

The film is gorgeously shot by Lurhmann, but his most delightful touch is the use of traditional hand-painted backdrops for nature shots in lieu of CGI. While this might come off as hokey to some, it gives the picture that old-fashioned feel that it spends so much time seeking. The plot also has that same feel; the villains may as well be twirling their curled moustaches and the main characters are a grizzled man's man who forces himself to be alone and a spirited young woman who teaches him to love again. The film also has some ethnic stereotyping, which it has drawn fire for, but I don't think it's fair to criticize this, as it celebrates the almost magical quality, romantically so, of the ancient cultures that the "civilized" world essentially gentrified into oblivion. The people calling the film racist for it are the same ones who thought "Crash" was an absolute masterpiece, because it appealed to the white guilt impulse that far too many seem to possess. (For the record, I loved "Crash," though I'm also very aware that it was exploitative as hell, but I digress.)

The performers play the roles exactly as they need to be played. Jackman never once loses the devilishly playful twinkle in his eye, and in the inevitable scene in which he shows up to a ball as Ashley's date, clean shaven and dapper, he looks like an Old Hollywood star in every possible sense. Kidman is even better, and I say that having liked her in very few of her movies, but here she channels her inner Scarlett O'Hara and chews scenery with a gleeful ferocity that most actors wish they could enjoy. Special note must be made of Walters, who lends a depth to Nullah that actors far older than he often struggle to attain. During one sequence, in which he stares a cattle stampede right in the eye, he is as steely and tough as any other performer in a film this year. Regardless of the writing, which is knowingly old-fashioned, every actor in the film plays their roles with the kind of swing-for-the-fences glee that actors of the Golden Era would.

I cannot do anything but credit Luhrmann for following whatever muse inspired this film. Considering that there isn't much of an audience for a movie like this (it's three hours long, it looks cheesy if you don't understand the logic, the trailers did it no justice at all), it takes serious courage to make this film. However, if you can appreciate it for all of its winking flaws, it just might be one of the most entertaining films to be released this year.

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