When I think of director Baz Luhrmann’s previous work (such as Romeo + Juliet, or Moulin Rouge), words like “glittering” or “stylish” might come to mind, but not so much “saga” or “sweeping”. So going to see his take on the period epic had me expecting some surprises. While the outback cowboy romance that began the movie was definitely refreshing and enjoyable, the biggest surprise was how it kept going and going, morphing into a WW2 melodrama in a way that did not fit well at all.
I loved the way the movie began, with a folk-tale-style voice-over from one of the main characters: Nullah, a half-aboriginal, half-white child. As the story unfolds, we are introduced to the other main characters: Nicole Kidman as the British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley, and Hugh Jackman as the cattle-rustling Drover. The beautiful northern Australian landscape and the period setting (the eve of WW2) colour everything with a classic golden tint, but Luhrmann’s non-subtle style is still evident. From the close-ups and quick-moving cuts, to the large helpings of dramatic slo-mo, the contemporary, post-MTV vibe adds a tongue-in-cheek quality to the movie.
Lady Ashley arrives in the outback to learn that her cattle rancher husband has been killed, and that she needs to save their cattle station, Faraway Downs, from the local “baron” who has a monopoly on the business. In steps (or should I say “swaggers”) Jackman’s Drover to help her get her 2000 head of cattle to the port of Darwin to sell to the military for a lucrative contract. The cattle drive is what you’d expect: a mix of thrilling and tense action when they struggle against obstacles and quiet, revealing bonding moments around the campfire at night. As with any sports movie (or nowadays any dance-competition movie) you know what the outcome is going to be well in advance. What you don’t know is that as the sun sets on their happy little ranch, the movie’s far far from over.
Sadly, the rest of the movie is not really worth caring about. There are plots involving the villain of the film (Neil Fletcher, the former manager of Faraway Downs, who’s been working with the cattle baron King Carney in many evil ways), there are plots about the war and Japanese bombings, there are plots about Nullah and how he is interned at a mission, and we can’t forget the romance between Lady Ashley and the Drover. It’s almost like the movie is an abridged version of a television mini-series or something. Which means that when these events occur, the audience is just along for the ride, not having invested enough time or emotion in what’s going on to truly care. For an epic film, we haven’t met enough of the side characters to feel for them, but Jackman and Kidman alone do not have enough going on to carry such a far-reaching story either. To top it off, Luhrmann does his movie no favours by making virtually every scene feel like a climax, with swelling music and rosy-hued skies. I found myself thinking, “OK, just move on with this scene because I know it’s not the ending anyway.”
It’s a pity that the story-treatment is what ultimately disappoints, because the production of the movie is pretty good. As I mentioned, the scenery is spectacular, and the acting is not bad (given the more whimsical rather than gut-wrenching tone of the drama). I even appreciated all the slick camera-tricks and other techniques used by Luhrmann to keep things fun. If only they had kept the story better-paced and more interesting. After all, it was about time that someone told some stories from Australia’s history for all the world to see. (3.5 out of 5)
What if I had made Australia?
One of the problems seemed to be too much focus on Kidman and Jackman’s story alone. If I had been planning to tell the war story after the cattle-drive story, I would have cut to scenes with characters in the military or who would have been affected by that part of the later story even while the cattle-drive story was being told. Same goes to some of the other sub-plots in the movie. I would have done my best not to make the audience feel like they’ve taken a hairpin turn every time the plot changes focus. David Wenham (as Neil Fletcher) gave an adequate performance, but his character was so ruthlessly evil that he really seemed like he was getting ready to twirl his moustache (he did have one) in every scene. I would have toned down the caricature. That actually goes for a lot of the side characters. I know they were trying for a humourous tone, but it made the human drama seem very light-weight. Finally, there’s a terribly inconsistent scene where Sarah and Drover have a big fight which seemed way too heavy and dramatic for this movie. That scene would have been reworked or removed altogether.