Friday, November 20, 2009

Baz Luhrmann is not a director I hold in high regard. All of his previous films have either annoyed the hell out of me or given me a blistering headache. He’s a director turned up to eleven, a director who believes more is more, a director who is the enemy of good taste. So colour me surprised when I found myself enjoying his latest offering.

Australia does not have a promising beginning. As is typical of Luhrmann, you’re bombarded with flashy visuals, quick editing and ridiculous acting. There’s a horrible sense of hysteria about the thing. Indeed, the exposition at the beginning is so rushed and so relentless that you feel like someone is shouting at you while slapping you in the face with a leather glove. Are you listening, the film is saying? Are you paying attention? Because I’ve got to get this tedious setting-up-the-story shit off my chest quick so that I can have some fun.

The hysterics extend to Nicole Kidman’s acting. She’s a talented actress but she has another side to her, a side that wants to paint with the broadest brush strokes. For the first hour or so this is the Kidman we get. The one with wild eyes, a shrill voice and exaggerated body movements. But then eventually she settles down and her performance improves considerably.

The problem with the beginning of the film is that it’s a broad comedy. Kidman enters the story as a prissy Englishwoman down under. And before you know it she’s getting hot under the collar about Hugh Jackman’s plan to mate horses and cooing like an idiot at kangaroos.

The kangaroo scene is a good example of just how awful the beginning is. Kidman’s character sees them out of the window of a van and dumbly admires their beauty. And then just as she’s cooing like a gibbering imbecile, one of Jackman’s pals shoots one and we’re confronted with a horrific close-up of Kidman’s grotesquely startled face. It’s exactly the kind of shit I expect from Luhrmann – childish, hysterical filmmaking.

The point at which I began to enjoy the film was when the characters entered the city of Darwin. Kidman’s acting had calmed down and there was little of the broad comedy that had tainted early scenes. Suddenly the film seemed almost comfortable in its own skin.

The first sequence in Darwin boasts some of the film’s best moments. There’s a lovely moment when Nullah, a mixed race child, watches The Wizard of Oz while wearing black face. He does this because it was the policy in Australia to separate mixed race children from their families so that the black could be ‘bred out of them’. This ingenious way of avoiding the authorities made me smile.

The sequence in Darwin is also where Kidman and Jackman fall in love. Previous to this, their relationship makes little impact whatsoever – Jackman is the typical Indiana Jones/Crocodile Dundee-style rogue with a heart of gold and Kidman is a boring toffee-nosed Limey. But in the sequence in Darwin, Jackman suddenly turns up all clean-shaven and looking every inch like James Bond. As a red-blooded, heterosexual male, even I’d be tempted by this hunk of a man.

The scenes in the rain where Jackman and Kidman first kiss are kind of reminiscent of David Lean. Sure Australia is nowhere near as good as a Lean film, but Jackman and Kidman have chemistry and the love scene is surprisingly sexy.

However, it seems to me that Luhrmann is far more enamored with Jackman than he is with his leading lady. Time after time we see lingering shots of Jackman’s toned physique. Indeed, in one of the opening scenes the director’s admiration is kind of ridiculous. As the characters camp in the Outback, there’s a slow-motion shot of a topless Jackman pouring water all over his chiseled body. No wonder Kidman gets so hot and bothered.

For me the film’s peak is a brief montage sequence after the events in Darwin where we see Fletcher feed his boss to the crocodiles. Previous to this Fletcher has been nothing more than a mealy-mouthed henchman to a ruthless cattle merchant. But in an instant Fletcher goes from being an annoying pissant to a cold-blooded psycho killer. And the sequence is perfectly filmed. There’s some wonderful voiceover from Nullah, there’s some great music and there are some fantastic visuals. It’s everything cinema should be – visually and aurally arresting without calling attention to itself.

My second favourite scene occurs after the Japanese attack Darwin. There’s a scene where Jackman wanders the devastated city and finds the bar where he first met Kidman. The music is perfect and there’s some echo-drenched voiceover from previous scenes. Again it’s surprisingly restrained cinema and subsequently has a pleasing emotional punch – Jackman thinks Kidman is dead and this is a nostalgia trip to stab himself in the heart with.

The scene at the bar also serves the film’s political point. At first the barman won’t serve Jackman’s friend, an aboriginal, but after some threats and some screaming, Jackman manages to get equal treatment for his friend. Jackman is a voice of reason in a society where racism and prejudice is always on the surface.

Nullah, the film’s narrator, is also a means for Luhrmann to assuage some of his country’s guilt. Here is a mixed race child who experiences the push/pull of wanting to be with his surrogate white family and with his aboriginal grandfather. The character says that he’s neither black nor white and therefore exists in some sort of no man’s land. But at the end of the film Luhrmann has the child choose his black grandfather over his white family. This seems to be an apology for the harm that the Australian authorities did and a way of illustrating how important it is to retain our cultures – the way that the authorities tried to breed the black out of children was cultural robbery pure and simple.

At the end King George (Nullah’s grandfather) says to his grandchild that this is their country. Yes Australia is their country but the way that he says it seems to be inclusive. Australia, for better or for worse, also belongs to the foreigners who settled there.

The ending notwithstanding, the final act of Australia is kind of a disappointment. It ends with a rather dull child rescue sequence. And the demise of Fletcher smacks of desperation (he gets speared by King George – it’s like Lurhmann doesn’t quite know how to get rid of his villain and so just decides to give him a soap opera death). But that being said, I was still pleasantly surprised by Australia. I found it highly entertaining.

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