‘Australia’ evokes disagreement amongst reviewers
December 4, 2008
It’s never a good sign when the projectionist tells you to pack a lunch before watching a movie. This happened to me when I went to go see “Australia,” a big slice of epic pie from “Moulin Rouge!” director Baz Luhrmann. I took my friend’s words with a grain of salt, since I dug Luhrmann’s crazy revisionist musical and assumed the man would employ similarly stylistic flair to his latest project.
Unfortunately, a rude awakening awaited me as “Australia’s” beginning credits rolled. What begins as a plucky tribute to the sweeping epics of yore soon sours up and turns into a bloated example of melodramatic storytelling at its most taxing.
“Australia” starts off in the early days of World War II. Feisty socialite Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has had enough of her absentee husband, making the lengthy trek from England to Darwin, Australia to check on the cattle ranch he’s become so engrossed in. But not only has Sarah’s husband bit the big one, but local baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) is hell-bent on claiming the ranch and completing his stranglehold on the Australian beef market. Of course, Sarah isn’t going to take this sitting down, so after recruiting a rugged cattle driver known as Drover (Hugh Jackman), she makes the perilous journey to move her herd from the ranch to Darwin. Time, the elements, and Carney’s lackeys are all working against Sarah, but she tries her hardest to persevere in spite of it all, even falling hopelessly in love with the dashing Drover in the process.
I understand perfectly what “Australia” is going for. It’s a modern-day ode to classic Hollywood epics that focused on the indomitability of the human spirit, even in the harshest of conditions. As it turns out, the indomitability of the human spirit is about as interesting as watching cheese age, or at least that’s how it is in this endeavor. The trouble is that the movie overestimates its own strength and depends way too much on the story’s backdrop to carry it to the finish line. Luhrmann focuses most of his energy on playing up the film’s spectacle angle, which ends up making “Australia” look fantastic, but ultimately feel semotionally hollow.
The absence of a tongue-in-cheek spirit only confirms the fact that Luhrmann unwisely took this project on with the straightest of faces, resulting in a dour, molasses-like pacing that hinders the film’s last couple of acts. On a visual front, though, “Australia” has it made, with some of the most gorgeous cinematography you’ll ever see in a film this year. Luhrmann does a fantastic job of capturing the beauty of the Australian wilderness (too bad nothing interesting happens in it). Plus, despite the hokey material, Kidman and Jackman each deliver crackerjack turns, with the latter doing an especially solid job of playing the picture’s rough-and-tumble protagonist.
Had the story not been so flavorless and the characterizations so one-dimensional, there would have been potential for a big, burly and bustling adventure out of this premise. Instead, the most “Australia” will inspire viewers to experience the down under themselves is in cracking open a can of Foster’s.
A.J. Hakari is a student at UW-River Falls.