Movie Review: Australia

On a completely different note, my wife and I recently saw the movie AUSTRALIA. Not being a fan of big multiplex theaters, we waited until the film came out on DVD. Am I ever glad that we did: plunking down thirty-five to forty bucks to see this “stinker” would have probably sent me straight into cardiac eurhythmia! And that’s too bad because we both were really looking forward to this film. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a tremendous disappointment.

I suppose AUSTRALIA was such a letdown because our expectations were too high. Based on the trailers, we both assumed that it would be an Australian version of “Out of Africa.” And while neither of us expected Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman to measure up to Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s performances in OUT OF AFRICA, we did expect a thoughtful adult film about an interesting historical period set against a backdrop of breath-taking Australian scenery and wildlife. I don’t know — maybe we weren’t ready for Nicole Kidman as an English Duchess; certainly, Jackman’s part as the Australian cattle drover, however, seemed a natural extension of his earlier character from the “X-Men” movies: Wolverine. All that aside, we did expect the film to have a memorable soundtrack, particularly since this director had collaborated with Kidman on MOULIN ROUGE. Boy, were we ever wrong about everything except for the scenery! Not only is the movie’s music destined for an elevator near you, but more importantly, the characters are virtually all implausible to the point of being cartoonish. In addition, to insure that the viewers’ dissatisfaction would be total, the director and screenwriters apparently made a major effort to completely botch the actual history of this period.

To begin with, according to the film’s narrative, the female British aristocrats of this era were timid, stupid little squishes. Although they were often raised in country estates, in this movie, they are, none the less, completely overwhelmed when they encounter even moderately rustic surroundings. This conception of the female English gentry, of course, perfectly contradicts my impression of the personas of Lady Mountbatten, Clemmie Churchill, or Queen Elizabeth II, among others. Oddly, the director asks the audience to accept this astonishing plot device during a historical period when the favorite winter recreational past times of the British Country Gentry were fox hunting and game shooting — both of which were, to say the least, blood sports and most assuredly not for the squeamish. Of course, it goes without saying that the majority of the white Aussie locals (we’re talking men, women, and children here) that Kidman’s character encounters during the course of the film are either racists, or criminals, or both. This racial element is crucial, in plot terms, because (SPOILER ALERT) the Kidman character develops a deep emotional bond with a young half-aborigine child the instant she arrives to take charge of her (now deceased) husband’s cattle station. Apparently, she had never encountered a single poor child deserving of help during her prior life in England. Not to belabor the point, but this cloying subplot follows a “paint-by-numbers” progression: cute little kid’s Mum dies tragically, if conveniently; Kidman’s character discovers her maternal side and decides to adopt cute little kid; nasty racist locals send cute little kid to orphanage for no discernable reason; Jackman’s character rescues cute little kid and his friends from marauding Japanese; Japanese respond by killing Jackman’s aborigine partner; everybody is reunited and …; well, you get the idea. Oh, and did I mention that, just so no dramatic clichés are left unused, the cute little kid’s Grandfather is an aborigine headman with mystical powers.

And then, backtracking for just a bit, there is the matter of her husband’s murder during the first few minutes of the movie. Everyone knows that the death of an English Duke, natural or otherwise, would scarcely draw any attention at all from the British Press. Moreover, it is more than reasonable — in Baz Luhrmann’s world, at least — for no one to take any serious official interest in the unlucky Duke’s untimely exit. Legally, it seems, no one wants to be bothered: not representatives of the British Crown, not agents of the Australian government, and most certainly not the local constabulary. This is probably why, when the movie’s requisite “lovable” drunk is trampled to death by stampeding cattle — the result, of course, of the criminal actions of a nasty band of competing stockmen — no one in Kidman’s merry band of helpers even bothers to mention this inconvenient occurrence to the local authorities. Apparently filing a police report is just too much trouble in “rough and tumble” old Australia. Besides, it is much more visually exciting to see her surviving drovers chase a mob of rampaging cattle through the streets of Darwin. Much more important to the story line than the demise of the odd Aussie local, is the arrival of the Duchess and her cattle just in time for her entire untallied mob to immediately be sold — without the fussy formality of a contract — to an agent of the Australian Army.

Sadly, the film’s historical gaffes get even more far-fetched when it comes to the early days of World War II in Australia. It would seem that, historical record or no, the carrier pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy liked to waste ordinance bombing and strafing remote island churches that had absolutely no plausible military value. (Okay, the church depicted in the film may have had a radio!) To be fair, a few of the Japanese pilots — probably those slackers who didn’t pay attention to the “be sure and commit a pointless atrocity” memo — actually continue on to attack the Australian Coastal city of Darwin and the shipping in its harbor. However, even more interesting is the movie’s bizarre depiction of an inexplicably pointless Japanese amphibious raid on an isolated island orphanage well away from the bombed-out port: an event that somehow completely eluded serious historians of the Pacific War. Thankfully, these historical lacunae have now been filled by director Baz Luhrmann and his screenwriters.

What is particularly disappointing about this botched effort is that this movie clearly cost a lot of money to produce. The cinematography was excellent, and the cast struggled mightily to bring their cartoon characters to life. But in the end, everyone failed. Even shot against the gorgeous scenery of the Australian Outback and the dramatic backdrop of World War II, Luhrmann and his writers somehow, and against all odds, managed to end up with no compelling story to tell.


  • This movie is an embarrassment. BL should have based it around the campaign in Timor, supported from Darwin, and got rid of all the rubbish and cliched fiction.

    That movie is yet to be made.

  • Greetings Ian R:

    I am still flumoxed that so many mtalented people could labor so hard and produce such unmitigated tripe. Yes, there was anti-aborigine racism in Austrialia during the historical period depicted (and racism is bad: we get it). And yes, in a burst of missionary zeal, aborigine half-caste children were rounded up by the authorities (although I have a hard time believing it was ever seen as a particularly high priority) and shipped off to be educated in Christian church orphanages. Certainly, this was -- in spite of the "civilizing" intentions of the perpetrators -- also a dismal episode in Austrialia's history. But to build an entire film around it?

    So far as the cast goes: while I have no strong feelings, one way or the other, about Nicole Kidman; I have always liked Hugh Jackman because, to a certain extent, he reminds me of a younger Mel Gibson (without all of the personal demons). Of course, Jackman is probably never going to be on anybody's short list of great actors, but he still does a good enough job in the right role. In fact, his acting style reminds me a little of that of Humphrey Bogart who once interrupted John Ford as the famous director was starting to describe the motivation of Bogart's character in a coming scene by interjecting: "John, I have three expressions; which one do you want?"

    Best Regards, Joe

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