Australia, 2008, 165 minutes, Colour.
Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Brandon Walters, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil, David Ngoombujara, Ben Mendelssohn, Barry Otto, John Jarratt, Essie Davis, Tony Barry, Ray Barrett, Sandy Gore, Kerry Walker, Max Cullen, Bruce Spence, Jacek Koman, Bill Hunter.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
Crikey! Many of us have been wondering about how Baz Luhrmann's Australia project would turn out. Would it be the great Australian epic? Would it be a rousing patriotic adventure? Would be be the emotioinal rollercoaster of an Australian romance? And the location photography? And the aboriginal themes? And World War II? And the droving?
Well, the ingredients are certainly all there. It would have been different had Australia been directed by Peter Weir, or Fred Schepisi or (and there's an idea!), Paul Cox. But it hasn't. It's a Baz Luhrmann film and that means something different. His three previous films offer some ideas on what the film might be like: colourful with more than few touches of tongue-in-cheek kitsch like Strictly Ballroom; a breaking through of expectations of a genre as he did in his wildly whirling update of Romeo+Juliet; enjoying what he is doing colourfully and extravagantly as he did with Moulin Rouge. And, yes, that is what he gives us with Australia, plus the epic aspects, the locations, the aboriginal themes, the romance, the cattle droving, the bombing of Darwin. And, as a song which may be a favourite of his says, 'who could ask for anything more!'. (The title is, of course, the hopeful, 'We're in the money'.)
Actually, the first fifteen minutes or so seemed more than a little farcical, especially establishing Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, almost a caricature of British landed gentry, and all this intercut with fast moving stuff in Darwin with cattle barons, their unscrupulous managers, drovers and pub brawls. What were we in for?
Then it all settles down for another two-and-a half hours where we can either sit grouchily wondering how someone else might have done it or just surrender to it and be carried along by the melodramatic romantic swirl of it all. This reviewer opted for the latter.
Luhrman loves old movies and this one plays like those colourful Hollywood epics of yesteryear, no, yesteryears – take Gone with the Wind from the 30s, of course, but think of Raintree County or Elephant Walk from the 50s... You know that a lot of these events took place with characters like these but not quite like what we are seeing.
The cattle industry of the 1930s at the service of the war effort brings Australian patriotism to the fore but, also like those westerns of yesteryear, the cattle droving must include stampedes and some jealous rivals and dirty work. The humanising of the prim English lady has to happen – and, emotional-screenplay-wise, who better to achieve this than the archetypal outback Australian (no, not Crocodile Dundee though not necessarily all that far off), the drover. Needless to say, Hugh Jackman is the perfect embodiment of the drover. And you can't help but like him. And who better than a mixed race eleven year old boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who looks and acts endearingly cutely (only stone-faced curmudgeons will resist a tear glistening in their eyes), who does the voiceover commentary, is wanted by the police as part of the stolen generation, joins the cattle drive and looks on 'Mrs Boss' as his new mother, and has a grandfather, a tirbal elder (David Gulpilil continuing his playing of archetypal aboriginal roles) who connects mystically to Nullah and wants to instruct him on a walkabout.
The villains are usually good in this kind of melodrama. Bryan Brown seems to be enjoying himself immensely as the slightly lordly but beer-drinking rival cattle baron and David Wenham (not having a moustache to twirl, he chews the sets instead as dastardliness personified) is the unscrupulous and ambitious manager.
For an Australian audience, the cast is full of familiar faces, led by Jack Thompson as an educated, rum-fuelled and filled accountant, Ben Mendelssohn as a military officer, Barry Otto as the administrator of Darwin, John Jarratt as the sergeant, David Ngoombujarra as the Drover's sidekick, Tony Barry as Callahan and plenty more.
The cattle drive has its impressive moments. The bombing of Darwin captures the surprise of the attack and the effect on the locals – though the writers have made up a story about a school of mixed race boys on an island in Darwin harbour run by religious priests, brothers and nuns where Arthur Dignam as the priest-in-charge rings the information about the Japanese planes through - in real life, the call was made by Fr John Mc Grath MSC from the mission on Bathurst Island) which provides a dramatic climax involving Sarah looking for her foster son, the drover leading a rescue operation and the search for Nullah.
So, Australia will divide the audiences and the critics, love it or hate it, be enthralled or be bored, but it's there and it now finds its place in Australian cinema history.
PS. Crikey! Some people have complained about all the 'crikeys'. The drover says it four or five times and Sarah twice, so that's six or seven times in 165 minutes, averaging one for every 22 minutes.
1.The scope of the film, its style? Entertainment rather than history?
2.Baz Luhrmann and his visual style, his melodramatic style, colour, design, the background of musicals?
3.The location photography, the desert, the Northern Territory, the town of Darwin in the 1930s, Mission Island? The musical score?
4.The special effects: the stampede and the cliff, the bombing of Darwin, the animal and kangaroo inserts, the artificial effects for the city of Darwin?
5.The film as Australiana: Australian stories, traditions, Aborigines and the land, Aborigines and mystical connections, initiations? The Australian character, good and bad, snobs and racism, work, wealth, bosses? Independence? A story after one hundred and fifty years of white settlement? The British and their adaptation to the land, being humanised? The good-heartedness of Australians, their narrowness?
6.World War Two, the role of the British, the military, the need for beef supplies, the land barons, the Japanese and Pearl Harbour, the attack on Darwin, the bombings, the Japanese landing, the effect on Darwin, evacuation, the damage? The newsreels showing the images of the period?
7.The introduction and its style, the British scenes and their farcical touch, the 30s, Lady Ashley, her snobbery? Her being suspicious, the contrast with Darwin, the Drover, the pub, the brawl, the Aborigines excluded, women not being allowed in, Sarah’s decision to go, the flight, her arrival and expectations? At the wharf? Going to the pub? Her things being scattered?
8.Settling down, the sprawl of the film, a saga rather than an epic, the many plots, themes, the blend of the serious and the comic?
9.The cattle themes, the billabong, Nullah and his grandfather, hiding in the water, the death of Maitland Ashley? The spear? The police suspecting King George? Fletcher and his being the killer? Working for Carney? The set-up, Fletcher’s motivations for recovering the land?
10.Sarah and her arrival, the Drover, the people, the Aborigines, the style, the bar, her luggage being used for the brawl? The Drover and the discussions? The drive, people chasing the truck, the kangaroos, the Aborigines arriving, the shooting of the kangaroo? Her arrival, her husband dead?
11.Nullah, the opening, the background of his mother, Fletcher? With King George? Hiding in the water, the spear? His knowing the truth? The truck coming, hiding in the tank? His voice-over and his telling of the story, referring to Sarah as Mrs Boss?
12.Fletcher and Carney, the management of the station, the plans, ownership, the extent of the land, Fletcher meeting Sarah, Nullah and the threats to go to the mission school, the plan and the pressure for Sarah to sell, the movement of the stock, discovering Fletcher’s lies? The enmity? Fletcher and his men, fired by Sarah, setting the fires to stampede the cattle? His marriage plans for Carney’s daughter? Trying to board the cattle, the Drover taking the cattle en mass onto the ship? The ball, his attitudes? Carney and the news about the spear, Carney’s contempt for him, his murdering Carney with the crocodile? His plan for Nullah, for blackmailing Sarah? The police and their search for Nullah? The war, Sarah at work in Darwin, his wife working at the office? The bargain with her to sign the contract and get Nullah back? The bombing, his wife’s death? The boys being rescued, Sarah with Nullah and the Drover, his wanting to shoot them? King George and his spearing him? The discussion about power and pride?
13.Carney as the boss, his power, family, his daughter and the marriage to Fletcher? His snobbish wife and her friends, especially the judging of the Drover, of Sarah’s behaviour? Their disgust at the dancing, his coming to the ball? Sarah’s comments about the paternity of the mixed-race children? Fletcher’s wife, her kindness, wanting to help Sarah, her death?
14.The authorities in Darwin, the administrator, the military, the issue of meat, contracts? The ball and the auction for a dance with Lady Sarah? Carney and his paying five hundred pounds?
15.The military, the captain, pleasant, the issue of the contract, Fletcher pressurising him, the issue of the rescue of the children? The sergeant and the evacuation from Darwin? The children being rescued and evacuated?
16.The cattle drive, the preparation, Fletcher being fired, Flynn and his drinking, his explanation of the books and accounts, going on the drive, friendship with Nullah, the mouth organ, the stampede and his death? The Aboriginal stock-hands? Magarri and his sister being the Drover’s wife? The bond between them? The women going on the drive? The Chinese cook? Sarah and her riding, Nullah and his going on the drive as well?
17.Callaghan, his visits, wanting the mixed-race children, Nullah hiding in the tank, the military, Nullah’s mother and hiding, her drowning? Nullah staying with Sarah?
18.The droving, the night, the camp, Sarah and her trying to sing ‘Over the Rainbow’, telling stories? Her not being good with children? Kissing the Drover, attempting to dance? In the desert? The suddenness of the fire and stampede?
19.King George, the elder, grandfather to Nullah, the fires, watching, singing, the mystical connections, Flynn and his death, Nullah and his abilities?
20.The arrival in Darwin, the race to the wharf, the loading, drinks for all? The acclaim for Sarah?
21.The ball, the auction, the discussion about the children, the administrator and his racist and eugenic attitudes, the priest? Carney and his bid? Sarah talking with Carney, telling her the truth? The Drover arriving in his formal dress? Sarah’s happiness at the dance? The discussion about the stolen generation?
22.The years passing, Faraway Downs and life there, work, Nullah growing up, the Drover being away for part of the year, the love for Sarah, the Aborigines, the Chinese?
23.Fletcher, his wealth, the marriage, his killing Carney? His threats? Nullah and King George wanting to take him on walkabout, Sarah reluctant, the Drover disagreeing with her and going off, Nullah being taken by Callaghan? The Drover and Magarri hearing what had happened, going to Darwin?
24.Sarah and her work, for the war effort, relinquishing Faraway Downs, the clash and break with the Drover, her concern about Nullah?
25.Sarah, the contract, the preparation for getting Nullah back? The bombs, the raid, the death of Fletcher’s wife?
26.The children rounded up, not being evacuated to safety, being taken to Mission Island? The clergy and the nuns? The planes flying over, the priest warning Darwin, the bombs falling and the destruction on Mission Island? The children fleeing?
27.The aftermath, the Drover and his interactions with Ivan, Ivan and his prejudices, helping with the rescue mission? Magarri going as well? The boys appearing from the bush, Magarri distracting the Japanese and giving his life?
28.The captain, the sergeant, the evacuation, seeing the reuniting of Sarah and Nullah?
29.Ivan, the bar, his prejudices, gruff, with Sarah? Redeeming himself?
30.Fletcher, his anger, grief at his wife’s death, trying to shoot Sarah, being speared?
31.King George, his being arrested for the murder, in prison, his communication, singing? The bombs falling, his walking free, wandering through Darwin? The spear and his killing Fletcher?
32.The happy ending, Nullah and his going on walkabout, Sarah allowing it? Nullah and his powers, music, singing throughout the film, his control of the cattle on the cliff? The Aboriginal heritage? The final images not of Sarah and the Drover but of King George and Nullah?
33.Australian themes, changes, Aborigines, the perspective of the 21st century?