There is only one rational explanation capable of explaining the existence of Baz Luhrmann’s obese outback epic Australia: it’s an elaborate joke. A ruse. A jape. A gag. A sick $150 million dollar punch line made at the expense of every Australian. In case you weren’t aware, some drunken nut challenged Luhrmann to break box office records by making the most astonishingly bad Australian film of all time. Some deranged gambler sought to test the intelligence of cinemagoers the country wide by juxtaposing, alongside a solid year of thoughtful, intelligent and cheaply produced local features, a bumbling big budget behemoth just to see which one we were dumb enough to pick. There are no other level-headed explanations. Struth! Bugger me! Stone the crows! This movie stinks.
Of all the over-hyped, over-budgeted, over-blown, over-the-top productions in the history of Australian cinema, this one takes the cake. The media saturation for Luhrmann’s King Kong clunker has been incredible. It feels like the film’s promotion began during the dawn of man; stare very closely at the monolith in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey and you’ll see small type advertising Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. That’s why the apes were so excited.
In all seriousness, my media-saturated memory suggests it’s been ten years since we first heard that the maestro behind Moulin Rouge! and Strictly Ballroom was making an epic film entrusted with the name of our beloved country. Incidentally, ten years is about the same time this obscenely protracted film seems to go on for. As the movie slowly puttered towards completion, after manoeuvring past two or three fake endings that presented the tantalising prospect that the curtain was finally being drawn, it is no exaggeration to say I could feel myself that much nearer to death, compelled to inch closer and closer towards the light. Then I realised the light was green and it illuminated a sign that read EXIT.
It’s as if Australia – that’s the movie, not the country, dummy - was built with one under riding intention: to amalgamate as many national clichés and stereotypes as is humanly, cinematically, possible. They pour out of every scene; they drip from every frame. Luhrmann mines the sort of cultural cringe factor Paul Hogan exploited back in the 80’s in Crocodile Dundee, and this time around, outside the auspices of comedy, veering dangerously close to ‘historical’ epic, the ramifications are dire. I fear it will take years for us to live this film down. A message to international audiences, for which Australia was undoubtedly intended: just in case you didn’t realise, this film isn’t social realism. Luhrmann presents a time that never happened, in a place that never existed, with a people light years away from embodying, or even suggesting, what it means to be an Australian.
The screenplay has obviously been passed through many many hands – so much so that it’s totally bereft of any distinctive or individual style. Imagine a 600 page Mills and Boon novel titled ‘Crikey!’ and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Bad narration anchors the film. “This story begin far away in a land called Eng-a-land,” says Nullah (Brendon Walters), a young ‘half-caste’ child who meets the stiff and prudish Lady Sarah (Nicole Kidman) when she moves to Australia to supervise her property, a postcard homestead called Faraway Downs. Lady Sarah has a falling out with Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) and needs to move her cattle to Darwin, seeking the assistance of a beefy, built-like-a-brick-shit-house alpha male known only as The Drover (Hugh Jackman). Cattle are herded, love is in the air (somebody press the bullshit buzzer please), WWII breaks out, a yada yada. David Gulpilil plays Nullah’s grandfather, ‘King George’, and hovers around the characters as a kind of mythical, enigmatic figure, often relegated (in the film’s first half) to the top of a mountain. Legend though he is, Gulpilil’s character is eerily close in charisma to the baboon from The Lion King.
In one scene audiences are treated to the outrageous spectacle of watching hundreds of bulls running towards a cliff face. The inimitable Jack Thompson, playing a portly, larrikin drunkard – in other words not too much of a stretch of the imagination – falls off his horse and is horribly trampled. Watching him attempt to speak after being pulverized by cattle, spurts of incomprehensive gibberish emanating from his torn lips, his face cragged, blotted and red, is, frankly one of the funniest things you’ll see at the cinema this year. Certainly the film scores some points for that. I was hoping Thompson would simply ride his horse defiantly into thin air, that terrific boulder of a man majestically flying over the edge after taking one final swig of rum and hurling the bottle into the blur of speeding bodies and horns behind him.
Humour, for a little while, is Australia’s only redeeming feature. The opening act is a baffling mix of slapstick and melodrama, set to a bizarrely fast and quirky rhythm, and before things slow down it’s difficult – and weirdly stimulating - to get a handle on where Luhrmann is going and what he’s trying to achieve. The audience are invited in on the joke but the quirkiness soon subsides, leaving in its wake caricature, wishy-washy drama and cliché upon cliché. In retrospect, the tonal fluctuations of the story seem jolting and disorientating, but it pans out over such a long running time that moment-by-moment it is not obviously noticeable. By the time the first WWII planes jetted across the horizon, I well and truly had had enough. That was the beginning of the third act.
The script is appallingly handled: the dialogue is cringe worthy; the narration written by Hallmark; the characters are inflated caricatures. The cast are flamboyant and over-the-top, but none of the film’s problems are their fault. Jackman and Kidman are two capable performers but their chemistry here is hopelessly schmaltzy. I was not at all surprised to see Jackman slowly emerge from a smoke machine generated mist and walk into the arms of Kidman after a large-scale WWII recreation; clichés like this – visual, story-based or otherwise – carry Australia.
The supporting cast are a veritable who’s who of Australian acting legends: with varying degrees of screen time minor roles are dished out to Bryan Brown, Ray Barrett, Bruce Spence, John Jarratt, Bill Hunter, Barry Otto and others, though their presence in the film seems more like a certificate of recognition than actual performances. The drama is so inflated the characters often seem to be holding back from bursting into song. The film should have been a musical; we all know Hugh Boy-From-Oz Jackman would have preferred it that way.
I could go on and on about why you should think again before forking out cash to see Australia (not to mention the time outlay) and how sad it is that every decent Australian film this year, combined, cost less than a tenth of Luhrmann’s budget. I could go on and on about how discouraging it must be for cash-strapped local filmmakers who go into personal debt to make good films that nobody sees, and break even if they are lucky, only to be overshadowed by an ignoramus production like this, hovering over every production like a dark grey cloud.
Life is too short to watch dross like Australia, and if it weren’t, the average life expectancy for a human being would be about 100,000 years. Yes, I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, for your reading pleasure, I have compiled a basic extrapolation of the notes – both mental and written – that I took while watching this film. You will notice that on a few occasions my attention drifts away from the movie. If you’ve seen it, this should come as no surprise.
Without further ado, here are my notes:
- Opening few minutes and Nullah is in creek. Hops on horse. Rides out of water. This looks like a scene from Never Ending Story. Where is Falkor?
- Money can buy beautiful compositions and a state-of-the-art lens. Can’t buy a good script.
- Kidman’s character says: “it’s all very outback adventure isn’t it?” A moment later: “definitely not for everyone.” I assume she’s talking about the film.
- Half hour in, the idea that this mumbo jumbo will continue for another two hours is near incomprehensible.
- Beyond contrived, beyond unreal, beyond hyper real. This is cartoon.
- Jack Thompson, what a man, what a man, what a molly good man.
- Ridiculous dialogue. One of David Wenham’s henchmen says: “maybe that creamy fella has got the black magic.” The sort of guy K-Rudd apologised for.
- Kidman’s property, Faraway Downs, reminds me of the house from the ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ segment in Little Shop of Horrors.
- Tantalisingly short glimpse of Bill Hunter. More Bill Hunter needed. Cough up Bill Hunter.
- Hugh Jackman’s eyebrows are scene stealers. Should have been billed third on the credits.
- Characters watch Wizard of Oz. “The dreams that we dare to dream really do come true.” If that line was true this movie would have ended an hour ago.
- Wishy washy melodrama, inflated emotions: I will never leave you, I will find you, blah blah blah.
- Jackman gets a good line of dialogue. “Shut your damper hole will ya!” I challenge myself to slip that into everyday vernacular.
- Three or four fake endings. These tease audiences with the appealing prospect that this movie might be finishing.
- The little half-Aboriginal kid’s narration annoys me. He is starting to shit me. I am not a racist.
- There was no more Bill Hunter.
- Soooo many Australian motifs. I can’t believe I haven’t seen a didgeridoo or a meat pie. Or a pavlova. Mmm, pavlova. I like pavlova.
- At least there won’t be a sequel. What would they call it? Australia 2? Australia Too? Australia, Too Far Away? O Drover, Where Are Thou?
- Hugh Jackman’s teeth are eerily perfect. Should I have teeth like that? Probably. But I don’t like going to the dentist.
- Hope international audiences are smart enough to understand this is not what Australia is like, or was ever like. How embarrassing.
- Cringe factor: astronomical.
- Bazz Laurman – public execution justified?
- Previous note maybe went too far. Cancellation of Laurman’s visa definitely warranted. And kick him onto the plane with iron boot. Maybe poke his eyes out too.
- End credits: PM’s apology to stolen generation gets a mention. On ya Kevin. Now please apologise to the nation for allowing this film to happen.
Review by Luke Buckmaster
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenwriter: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan (story by Baz Luhrmann)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, David Ngoombujarra, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, Jacek Koman, David Gulpilil, Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Spence, John Jarratt, Bill Hunter, Essie Davis, Barry Otto, Arthur Dignam, Max Cullen, Sandy Gore, Crusoe Kurddal, Kerry Walker, Angus Pilakui, Lillian Crombie, Yuen Wah
Australian theatrical release: November 26, 2008