December 3, 2008

Movie Review: Australia

australia6_largeIn 1939 director Victor Fleming delivered an epic film to the big screen, a film that captured the spirit of the Civil War era South. It is a drama and a romance and it has captured the minds and hearts of generations. The ten time Oscar winner has been and will continue to be remembered for the cinematic landmark it is. That movie was Gone with the Wind. Will that type of larger than life and personally involving cinema ever again play out on the big screen? Sure, of course there will. If there is one thing a large segment of the population can get behind, it's an epic (just look at what Titanic accomplished). Now, Baz Luhrmann has crafted a new epic in the traditions of old. It is set in his homeland of Australia and set during the early days of the second World War. Appropriately enough, he has named his epic Australia and the film is almost as long as the continent is distant.

Australia is certainly epic, stretching itself across gorgeous tracts of land and spanning two-hours and forty-five minutes. It is as extravagant and unrestrained as Luhrmann's other films, like Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet. However, there is something different this time out, the camera is pulled back and we are allowed to gaze upon the brightly lit splendor of the land down under. If nothing else, there is always something to look at. Unfortunately, the story told in this landscape is not nearly as compelling or heartfelt as those other films I mentioned. I should say that it is not for lack of effort, regardless of how you feel about the finished product, those involved in its creation sunk a great deal of their own heart into it.

australia7The film has a lot to like, but I found the story to be somewhat lacking. I am not sure if it is the fault of the screenplay or the performances, but oftentimes I found myself held at arm's length from the characters. The whole felt distinctly like a Luhrmann film, but it also felt like a mash up of other influences, Gone with the Wind, Titanic, Pearl Harbor, and a touch of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, not to mention the rather overt referencing of The Wizard of Oz.

We begin at the dawn of WWII, Germany has invaded Poland and war is breaking out in Europe. With the horrors that war brings, beef will be needed to feed the troops and a good portion of that is scheduled to come from Australia, which has large cattle ranches that provide a good portion of the initial conflict, but before we get there we need to meet the primary players.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) is an aristocratic Englishwoman who hears that her husband is philandering on their sprawling ranch, Faraway Downs, so she packs up and heads down to see for herself. Her world changes as soon as she arrives, finding her husband dead and herself the sole owner of Faraway Downs. She also meets Drover (Hugh Jackman with a serious touch of Clint Eastwood), named for his profession as a cattle drover. She looks to him to run the station, while he prefers being his own boss. They may have only just met, but is there any doubt that the sparks will fly for the couple on opposite sides of the track?

australia4As she moves into Faraway Downs, she meets the Aboriginal folks who work there, and with Drover. Sarah also meets a young boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), whose grandfather is known as King George and has fled to the hills after being accused of murdering Sarah's husband. He also shows up from time to time as the magic man to help Sarah, Nullah, and their ragtag team. I guess I should mention that this film deals with the racism that was present in Australian national policy with regards to the Aboriginal people and the mixed race children, like Nullah, who were taken from their families and placed in missions where they were to be taught to be white and how to serve. It was a despicable practice that was only officially outlawed in 1973.

All right, all right, let's move on.

Sarah and Drover team with a few others to drive their cattle across their gigantic swatch of land in an attempt to beat rival cattle rancher and all around bad guy King Carney. During the drive the flames of passion begin to rise between the uppity Sarah, who is finding herself in this new land, and Drover who sees something in her. In addition to this relationship, Sarah emotionally adopts Nullah and the two become very close.

australia9Plot machinations arise to drive a wedge between all parties as the distant drama of the War comes ever closer to their shores. Considering that this is a sunny film meant to inspire smiles, can you guess how this is going to end? I thought so.

Overall, Australia is a film to be admired. It is simply beautiful to sit back and watch, it has a scope not often seen of late, and it just really puts it all out there for the audience. However, more than the cinematography and epic nature, there is one piece of the puzzle that I was not expecting and one that allowed me to occasionally draw closer than that arm's length that much of the rest seems intent on doing. That piece is Brandon Walters. This youngster in his first acting gig is charismatic on the screen, convincing in his performance, and to top it off you just have to smile when you see him. He breathes life into the film, providing the voice over narration and being the heart necessary to carry the film. Very impressive performance.

As for the two leads, I like Hugh Jackman and he does an admirable job here of transplanting an old school Clint Eastwood-type character into a romantic drama. Unfortunately, Nicole Kidman does not do the picture any favors. I do not think she is a bad actress and she is very good at playing cold, which she does here. The problem is that her growth from icy aristocrat to a motherly type in love with a rough and tumble common man does not strike home. Her warming up never really happens and I am left not caring.

Bottomline. Not great, not awful, Australia is a middling film that looks great on the big screen but left me tired after it's long running time and disinterested in a story that lacks much of the needed heart. It is worth it for Brandon Walters and the cinematography, just do not become too invested in the story as it left me flat.

Mildly Recommended.


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