Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy? – Freddie Mercury
Baz Luhrmann's Australia opens with a scene that
sent shivers up my spine. There's a campsite in the twilight,
with a baobab tree on the left and a campfire and silhouettes of people
on the right. Sparks fly. I recognised it immediately: it
was as if it was part of my DNA. It was part Maurice Tourneur,
the silent film director who made exquisitely beautiful films, and was
a master of the romantic silhouette. It was part 1940s/50s Australian
ceramic decorative art which adopted (and adapted) Australian
indigenous themes, and is seen now as kitsch, but which was very
popular in its day, and very collectible these days. It was part Albert
Namatjira. And it was straight out of a storybook*.
I breathed a sigh of relief, and a tear came to my eye. In one
scene Baz had lightly touched on something profound in my memories of
growing up in Australia. And at the same time he put me at my rest: I
could feel confident that the film would be both beautiful, and
By the end of the film, my confidence had been justified. This
film touches on the things –
sometimes foolish things, sometimes clichéd things, sometimes
landscapes, sometimes historical events, sometimes caricatures, that
add up to a fascinating picture of (mostly white) Australian identity.
not saying that it is an accurate picture: it's more like our
perception of what we are – or perhaps more accurately, our perception
of how others see us.
I'm being purposely indirect here. We
Australians are, after all, a very self-conscious people, very
concerned about how we are perceived. In short:
this film pushes lots of emotional buttons for Aussies like me.
What it might do for indigenous Australians I can’t even begin to
imagine, but I’d be fascinated to hear.
The film is being sold as a kind of gigantic travelogue/ advertisement,
intended to lure travellers to visit Australia (the country, not the
film). But I believe it has much more to say to white
Australians. It speaks volumes about the ambivalence we city-dwellers
feel abut the outback, and the distance we now have from our pioneer
origins. It speaks directly to the great pride we take in the
Australian landscape. It also touches, reasonably sensitively I hope,
great shame: the Stolen Generations (I'm writing of the film itself,
and not some of the rather insensitive surrounding advertising and
Australia references many,
many cultural artefacts, including, in addition to those I’ve already
mentioned, the films The Wizard of Oz
(1939 – a
surprisingly apt link), Gone With
the Wind (1939), From Here to
Eternity (1953), The
Overlanders (1946), and Tracey Moffatt's Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989),
as well as images from Tracey Moffatt's other artwork (Australian
indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt
is a member of the Stolen Generations). Anyone familiar with Australian
culture will be struck over and over again by familiar images. Baz
Luhrmann always does his homework thoroughly.
There are two or three set-action-pieces that are truly astounding, and
jaw-droppingly exciting. But despite all of the millions of
dollars put into this film, there are some really obvious bluescreen
effects: people are dropped into a landscape by means of computer – and
it shows. I think this is symptomatic of Baz's editing
problems. It seems he was rushing to a deadline and didn't have
enough time to make these scenes look absolutely real.
But then again, was reality what he was looking for? It can't be,
in a film that uses The Wizard of Oz
as a touchstone. This is not a documentary: it is a storybook.
Luhrmann always works with theatre and artifice: look at Strictly Ballroom (1992), William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
(1996), and Moulin Rouge!
(2001): pure artifice.
As to the performances, I thought the three main Aboriginal actors were
the standouts: David Gulpilil is one of those actors that you just
can't take your eyes off. Here, he leaves you wanting more. David
Ngoombujarra, as Magarri, is also impressive: I wrote about his talent
before in my review of Craig Lahiff's Black
and White (2002), and of course young Brandon Walters as Nullah
is not only meltingly beautiful, but also functions as the glue that
holds the narrative together – and given the scope of the narrative,
that's really saying something. Ursula Yovich, as Daisy, is
impressive in her short amount of screen time.
Hugh Jackman is a dashing, but down-to-earth hero. Bryan Brown is a
breath of fresh air as King Carney, the landowner with evil intent.
Jack Thompson is over-the-top as the alcoholic and evocatively-named
Kipling Flynn – but Jack is such an old pro that he makes it work, and
he evinced another set of tears from my eyes. Less successful is David
Wenham, who tries his best to tone down the moustache-twirling villainous
of his character.
And lastly, Nicole Kidman. However beautiful she looks
(particularly in the last part of the film), I can't overlook the
cartoonish nature of her Lady Sarah Ashley before she gets tamed by the
Australian outback. The scene where she sings "Somewhere Over the
Rainbow" (and forgets the words!) is just squirmingly embarrassing.
So this is a flawed film. It's also ambitious. It's a great adventure,
with truth, lies, romance, history, spectacle, and corn in equal
measure. It made me cry several times, and I was exhausted by the end.
It must be seen. I'm going to see it again on the biggest screen I can,
with the biggest sound system possible. Don’t listen to those who
say it is too long. It really moves along. And don't wait for the
DVD! Australia's too big a country for that.
*Thanks to my friend Natalia Bradshaw for suggesting this