Review: Baz Luhrmann’s Australia
This review was originally published in Cineaste, Vol.XXXIV No.2 2009
I had hoped (and thought) that upon viewing a film so brazenly titled with the name of the country in which I was born, raised and reside, I would feel something, anything. Instead, I left the cinema, empty and tired. During my post-film consideration, what resonates most is all that Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is lacking. A self-described “epic romance” with blockbuster ambitions, Luhrmann’s excessive vehicle his first film in seven years reaches into the epic genre and (somewhat gallantly) attempts to clutch at major themes—family, greed, grief and love, as well as identity, storytelling and mythology. Also reaching into Australia’s history, the film shows what it lacks—any serious consideration of the past. Instead the film is little more than a prolonged package of derivative content, conditioned by confused morals and intent.
The theme of storytelling is acknowledged from the outset when the youthful voice of Nullah (Brandon Walters) briefly explains through slang-filled Australian-English the importance of “tell(ing) ’um stories” in indigenous culture. Although it is Nullah a “half-caste” boy, born to an Aboriginal mother and a European-settler whose words weave through the film, Australia is not his story, but rather the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an aristocrat who dashes from the green knolls of England to check up on her absentee husband at their remote cattle station, Faraway Downs. Landing upon the dusty red plains of this Australian property, Lady Sarah soon discovers that, contrary to her earlier suspicions, her husband is not committing adultery but rather has been murdered. Her grief is conveniently swept aside when Nullah, appearing like an innocent apparition in the night, through spirit fingers and song, reveals the wicked plot afoot.
Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), the evil station manager of Faraway Downs, is strategically engaged to Cath Carney (Essie Davis), daughter of the mean-spirited, financially driven cattle industry tycoon King Carney (Bryan Brown), for whom he steals Lady Sarah’s unbranded cattle by herding them onto Carney’s land. Wenham plays the film’s central antagonist, as an exaggerated villain, reminiscent of Richard Roxburgh’s Duke in Moulin Rouge!. Fletcher’s malicious, money-grabbing aspirations and his intense envy of Lady Sarah’s riches, stature and moral goodness overwhelm the film’s portrayal of the much greater moral questions of Australia’s history–namely the physical and sexual abuse, and murder of indigenous women. These events occurred at the hands of some real white men and Australia does little to connect Fletcher to this past,and links him to Nullah.
Inspired by the words of Nullah (to whom she quickly grows attached as he ducks in and out of her property, hiding from “the coppas”—also bad guys doing Carney’s bidding) and in memoriam of her late husband, Lady Sarah soon to be dubbed “Mrs. Boss” decides to save Faraway Downs from Carney’s impending takeover. Through her decision, the audience is introduced to a few other background characters (or key stereotypes): the drunk accountant Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), the bag-carrying Asian cook Sing Song (Wah Yuen) (who is only permitted a few typecasting one-liners), and the placid yet deep-thinking Aboriginal sidekick Magarri (David Ngoombujarra). Luhrmann further placates narrative complication with a few lacklustre plot movements, most notably the sacrificial killing of Nullah’s mother (with grief overlooked once more to speed the way for Sarah’s maternal surrogacy).Australia pulls moments of Australian history and culture from an iconic mix-bag of images the English aristocrat, the lingo (“crikey”, “drongo”, “bloody”), the spear-wielding Aboriginal chanting on an ever-present cliff face (King George played by David Gulpilil) so that the characters and events seem no more than animated versions of the two-dimensional pictures printed on tourist tea-towels. A task that, in reality, would hardly be the cause of high drama, the call to muster 1500 cattle, here ensures the imminent romance of an Outback Adventure.
Cue the arrival of The Drover (Hugh Jackman). Branded solely by this eponym, he is recruited by Lady Sarah to work her land and cattle, and by the script, as her love interest. Following the obvious narrative arc, The Drover and Lady Sarah are so clearly destined to be together that, from their opening exchange of insults to their first kiss under the open sky, their romance is drained of tension—both sexual and cinematic. Jackman plays Drover with such hyper-masculine flair he spits, drinks, fights and curses in a matter of minutes that any potential allegiance with this ruggedly handsome hero is confounded by sheer hyperbole. Similarly, even as her icy exterior melts before the orange sands and sun, Kidman’s aristocrat is thoroughly unsympathetic and emotionless as a romantic lead. Within the film’s melodramatic format, the romantic sheen between this attractive pair should ooze sexuality but it doesn’t—even with Luhrmann’s enthusiastic exploitation of his outback setting dripping honey from multiple sunsets and glistening with diamonds in the night sky.
The performances of Kidman, Jackman, and Wenham all suggest that Luhrmann dabbles a little too intensely, and uncertainly, with a hodgepodge of tropes from the comedic, musical, dramatic and tragic realms. Luhrmann’s previous ability to fashion entertaining whimsy from post-modern quotation here becomes confused and shallow—Australia’s drama is clouded by artifice, the artifice muddled by drama, and any emotional attachment lost in the process. Moreover, in trying to be everything, it comes out as a narrative teaming with stereotypes that are both culturally and racially patronizing.
Australia places the viewer on a tourist bus winding its way through the breathtaking Australian landscape for just under three-hours. Not solely mirrored by Luhrmann’s advertisement for Tourism Australia (see: http://www.australia.com/campaigns/walkabout/au/), Australia is explicitly and implicitly tied to the many advertisements Australian audiences encounter prior to the screening for the “official (insert product) of Australia”—the film, not the country (or is it both?). Most viewers in Australia have been bombarded by the many different covers of various tourism magazines, supermarket DVD stands, and even pop drinks that have been branded with Australia’s iconography. Because Australia is so blatantly linked to a nation (“our land”), and because commercialism overrides other content—political and cultural—the film takes on a shameful superficiality, the inherent institutionalization of blockbusters, marketing and synergy notwithstanding.
The emptiness I encountered upon viewing the film was generated because, while the shame of my sunburnt country flames my cheeks, and the red of the landscape stains our collective hands, I was disappointed that Australia does not consider or mindfully reflect upon key historical atrocities, attempting instead to fashion history into a plot-perfect mythos of national identity: it embraces the beauty of our land, but in its own confused way, ignores the bitter, truthful ugliness. The film attempts to re-write history, injecting it with contemporary conceptions of race-relations and reconciliation: there are the good people (the indigenous populace), the bad people (the European populace), and those above it all (The Drover and, particularly, Lady Sarah). This is not a criticism about Australia’s historical accuracies, inaccuracies or correctness but rather about its lack of understanding and fundamental respect for our past and, more specifically, the past of indigenous Australians. While there are inaccuracies late in the film Luhrmann shows Japanese forces on Australian soil, which did not actually occur, and creates a fictional “Missionary Island” where aboriginal children were taken, implicitly to serve as the first Japanese targets—these are liberties permitted an artist. However, Luhrmann’s confused engagement and simultaneous disengagement with history as indicated by the film’s title cards is of concern, since, through its name and via its promotion, Australia places itself as representative of a nation.
At the start and finish of Australia, title cards reference the “Stolen Generation” of indigenous Australians and, in conclusion, to our Prime Minister’s recent apology to these traumatized peoples. A cause for much conflict in Australia’s cultural and political climate, and a constant and sad reminder of the truth of our imperialist history, the Stolen Generation refers to the period from 1883 to 1969 when Aboriginal children were forcefully removed from their families for various (most often shameful) reasons. Although some children were removed from abusive homes, many others were removed from loving families, their tradition and their culture, leaving mothers and children to grieve the loss. More than 30,000 mixed-race children were placed in the custody of missionaries who taught them the Christian, “civilized” way with the aim of integrating them into white society while attempting to avoid miscegenation. Although declared in print, this grave topic does not haunt the film as it could, or should. Meaningless bookends in an attempt to superficially politicize what is merely gloss, these words and the topic are not relevant to Australia’s plot, which brushes over the topic with a few easy movements, eliding the seriousness of the situation. In Australia Nullah is running away from this mandatory custody, yet, conveniently, his case is distinct. Rather than having the child forcefully removed from his family—his mother is killed early on—when he is eventually taken into custody, it is Lady Sarah from whom he is taken, thus displacing the pain from the “half-caste” child and his family to the aristocratic white landowner.
Halfway through the film, Sarah attends the Auxiliary Ball, a fundraiser for the mission and the church that while not explicitly referenced in the film became the legal custodians of the removed mixed-race children. A scene with strong potential as Sarah begins to voice protest and confront the “white-supremacist” locals with questions of blame—asking whether the indigenous mothers have been considered and whether the identity and responsibility of the fathers have been exposed—her queries are interrupted by the appearance of King Carney and his all-consuming desire to take her land and control the beef export industry. Even more egregious is the interruption of the politically-charged potential by a romantic climax when a tuxedo clad, clean-shaven Drover appears. Moreover, the film does not address the Stolen Generation explicitly: whether in exposing vile attempts at racial cleansing or, as also purported, beneficial aid. The main depiction of racism comes from mere name calling in sequences where the public dismiss Nullah as “creamy” and Magarri as “boong.” Further, representations of the indigenous community particularly Nullah and his Aboriginal grandfather “King George” are racially patronizing. They draw consistent attention to the innate spirituality of the Aboriginal peoples, to the point of suggesting the supernatural. Through constant references to their “black fella magic,” the Dreamtime (the spiritual dimension of Aboriginal culture whereby their many stories express their creation beliefs), Rainbow Serpents (an important creation belief), walkabouts (the traditional journey on foot over traditional lands—a rite of passage, here specifically from boyhood into manhood) and funereal rites—these elements of mysticism contribute an easy deus ex machina to the film. They are littered throughout moments of high drama. As they relieve the heroes from impending disaster, like a cattle stampede, the indigenous characters become tokenistic noble savages.
During the Thirties Darwin—a former pioneer outpost in the Northern Territory—was largely populated by simple European settlers who, amongst a multi-racial community, did not question their implicit dominance. The film’s confused moral intent, however, injects questions into the story. Thus, when Sarah ponders the community’s prejudices accompanied by the philosophical belief of Drover that “just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be”—the gritty and painful truths of the past are glibly avoided. By waving magic words, the past is patronized and the future (present) is glorified: a modern hope for a new beginning for Australia as a youthful nation, injects post-apology reconciliation race-relations into the early-twentieth century context of the story. Without spoiling the film’s ending (not that it is ever in doubt), the idealization of uniting the racially divided land to become “our lands” of both the indigenous and colonizers affixes on the film, and thus a complex nation, the impossible happily-ever-after stamp known only to fiction (as heeded by the film’s many faux-sentimental references to The Wizard of Oz that attempt to correlate Australia’s adolescent search for national identity with the tale of Dorothy’s journey). Granted, an attempt at referencing Australia’s inherent legacy of racism is commendable; however like the characterizations, the romance, and the story as a whole Australia’s approach is uninspired, tame, insincere, and dominated by a whirlwind of inflated clutter.
The typical rebuttal to these criticisms, that the film is “an epic blockbuster and hence shallow,” will likely circulate. It is a long, big, expensive movie that has moments of beauty and romance: the depiction of the Japanese air raid on Darwin was quite accomplished, based on real events of World War II. Also, as I am not heartless, I cannot discredit the breathtaking beauty of the landscape nor the adorableness of Brandon Walters as Nullah—the youthful innocence in his eyes is heart-warming. Yet the few moments of interest, emotion or even comedy in the film are overridden by its contradictory and confused impulses. I am not suffering a bout of “tall poppy syndrome” a condition to which we Australians are susceptible as I have enjoyed Luhrmann’s hyperbolically dizzy work of past. But Australia is never convincing, inspiring, or particularly moving—my eyes remained as dry as the plains. And when the film inherently claims, from its beginning to end and in its surrounding synergy, that it is something to which we, as a growing nation, are involuntarily attached, I am ashamed that there was no attempt to rectify the romance of our land with its harsh reality. All eyes were on the film; it could have inspired these eyes to shed a tear of sadness and embarrassment for the atrocities; it could have given much greater attention to moments it claims to focus on. Instead, Australia chose to perpetuate stereotypes and to exploit commercial (tourism) potential rather than political values or historical truths. And while the epic format may be notorious for such misgivings to throw the film’s own unfulfilled mantra right back at it “just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.”