|Brandon Walters, Nicole Kidman. |
Australia dir. Baz Luhrmann
“The only thing you own is a story. Better make it a good one.” - The Drover
“I’ve been to five continents and Australia has, by far, the most self-overrated, racist sots I’ve seen anywhere.” - ShatterEarth, aka Si
Every great society has a kick-ass founders’ myth. Romulus and Remus. Rhea and Gaia and Zeus and Cronos. Abraham. Muhammad. 1066. 1776. Qin Shi Huang.
Australia was founded as a penal colony for the UK after they could no longer drop their rejects off in America. The first convicts were such assholes that, if the History Channel is to be believed, the occupants on the first boat of women to be dropped off were all raped. With a founding story like that, who wouldn't want to make up their own? Better yet, hire a locally renowned movie director to invent one for you.
Baz Luhrmann chose to skip over his home’s early colonization and hop straight to the cusp of modern Australia, setting his story in 1939 and running it through to bombing of Darwin, when its white inhabitants were still just superior enough to be practicing cultural genocide on “stolen generations” of mixed race Aboriginal children. They were forcibly taken from their homes and placed in institutions.
It’s a good place to open this new legend. When Nicole Kidman, as ranger-wife (and soon to be widow) Lady Sarah Ashley, drops into Luhrmann’s brown and dusty world occupied by brown and dusty people, a riot of pastels trails into it with her. No matter how hot and parched and brown the land gets, pinks, baby blues and lavender are never long away when Kidman’s in a shot.
Lady Sarah and Hugh Jackman’s character, The Drover (he is referred to by his job title throughout the film), must steer 1,500 cattle across the range and sell to the military in order to save the family ranch. With them are assorted ranch hands and a young mixed-race Aboriginal boy named Nullah. Nullah needs the shelter from authorities Lady Sarah (whom he calls "Mrs. Boss") provides, yet longs for a traditional walkabout with his shaman grandfather. Against them are the boy’s treacherous father, played by Moulin Rouge and LotR alum David Wenham, and competing rancher Bryan Brown.
Completing the cattle drive constitutes the first act, where most of Australia’s humor lives. Act II is all about securing what was gained. Like Nullah, Drover wants to roam freely on the land but he, too, wants to have Mrs. Boss to come home to.
While the basic premise doesn’t steer too far from your average polished-woman-falls-for-tough-but-tender-roustabout-in-the-midst-of-a-great-and-trying-quest epic formula, Out of Africa it ain't. It's more African Queen. Until the final act, when things take a turn for the serious, it may be epic but it’s still a Baz Luhrmann film with screwier-than-life characters (albeit toned down from the usual Baz), look-at-this! frolicking camera shots, unlikely coincidences, and delightful resource thieving that never takes itself so seriously you want to club someone.
Australia runs 165 minutes and although there were a couple of instances I wondered how long it was going to turn out to be, the editing is tight enough that at no time did I find myself wishing it would hurry along. I don't know if Australia will become the tourist poster its home country hopes it will be, but it easily makes a great pitch for giving Baz Luhrmann a real budget.