Today I decided to review one of my favorite epic films from 2008, Australia. Also, my best friend asked me review the film, so I did. This film is not for everyone, it is a sweeping melodrama and is a throwback to the epics of Classic Hollywood. The review contains mild spoilers.
Synopsis: Set in northern Australia before World War II, an English aristocrat inherits a sprawling ranch. In order to protect her property from a takeover plot, she reluctantly partners with a rough stock-man. As the pair drive 2,000 head of cattle over unforgiving landscape, they also have to contend with the bombing of Darwin, Australia, by Japanese forces.
Review: Australia is a sweeping epic meant to soar above lesser movies. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, Australia is both a love letter to the outback and an exploration of a continent on the brink of war. Luhrmann wanted to make an Australian version of the classic Gone with the Wind. Unlike his previous films, Australia is a romantic epic filled with both intentional and unintentional melodrama. Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet are both punk-rock inspired movie dramas. Which is why Australia’s old-fashioned storytelling stands in stark contrast to the rest of Luhrmann’s directorial resumè. I am glad Luhrmann focused more on traditional storytelling, the movie would not have worked with stylized punk overtones. The film can be divided into two halves: romance and war. The middle portion tries to tie the two halves together.
1939: Hitler has invaded Poland and the armies of the free world need a dependable supply of beef. Meanwhile in England, Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) is alarmed that her husband is messing around on his cattle station, Faraway Downs, in remote northern Australia. Lady Sarah flies to Faraway Downs to confront her husband and finds him dead. She is now the sole owner of a cattle station and is surrounded by hostile “employees”. However, her passion for British social standards and dress does not endear Lady Sarah to the native populace. Without a foreman, Lady Sarah struggles to keep the station afloat. Kidman is excellent as Lady Sarah, she is both arrogant, independent, aloof, but also vulnerable and willing to ask for help.
Enter the Drover (Jackman), a rough-hewn free-standing cowboy who rubs Lady Sarah the wrong way. Jackman is great as a lone wolf cowboy, he is both repelled and intrigued by Lady Sarah. Drover is only compelling because of Jackman’s charisma and on screen presence. The Drover works with experienced Aborigine ranch hands and struggles to protect an Aboriginal boy named Nullah (Walters). Nullah provides the narration for the film. The relationship between Drover, Lady Sarah, and Nullah provides the emotional core to the saga. Their relationship matures throughout the narrative and helps to flush out the characters. Though the Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler parallels were a little too heavy handed. Lady Sarah is no simpering Scarlett, Sarah is much less headstrong and more self-sufficient. Also I highly doubt Scarlett would ever deign to participate in a cattle hustle. And Drover is not nearly as suave and sophisticated as Rhett. However, Drover has his own rough charm and is a good foil for Lady Sarah’s sophistication. Hence the conclusion of the “romance” portion.
Of course no “western” style film is complete without a villain, in this case an ambitious cattle rancher named King Carney (Brown). Carney really wants to add Faraway Downs to his expansive cattle empire. Everything depends upon who delivers their cattle to Darwin first. As far as villains go, Carney is pretty one dimensional. His sole goal is to stop Lady Sarah from reaching Darwin and he is rather passive aggressive in his approach. Brown is wasted in the role. David Wenham’s Neil Fletcher is a much more sinister character. He sneaks around and manipulates events to not only stop Lady Sarah but to also dethrone his father-in-law, Carney. This leads to a “domestic” war that is superceded by the actual war, WWII. It was quite disconcerting to see Faramir terrorizing people. Where did it all go wrong? The movie would have been stronger if Fletcher was the main villain, there was not enough time to adequately develop both Carney and Fletcher.
A majority of the cattle are supplied via CGI, which explains why they fearlessly stampede toward a high cliff. While this scene is a little hokey, it is the dramatic climax of the film. And it also marks the oddest subplot with Nullah channeling some kind of mystical powers. This addition was unnecessary to the story and struck an odd note. The climactic moments needed a thrilling and old-fashioned action sequence. Only extreme circumstances and a shared experience could allow Lady Sarah and Drover to cross extreme social lines and connect. This kind of event needed to be more climatic than a boy using pseudo-mystical powers and a night of dancing to a disjointed Over the Rainbow. This out really robs the narrative of a strong emotional punch and downplays the social “crime” Lady Sarah and Drover committed by choosing each other over a social equal.
Cinematography wise, the film is gorgeous. There are plenty of sweeping shots of the Australian Outback and gorgeous vistas. It is a beautiful film to watch. I think Australia would have been a stronger movie if it had a slightly tighter script and a shorter running time. Parts of the film feel rushed and other scene move incredibly slow. However, it is filled with a strong cast who do their best to make their characters come alive. Overall, Australia is a sweeping romantic melodrama that represent a dying breed of film. Though if it fell short of replicating the timelessness of Gone with the Wind. Despite its flaws, I love this film and watch it regularly. Sometimes it is nice to be reminded that ordinary people can save the day, not just comic superheroes.