Baz Luhrmann has never been a man to bow to cinematic convention. He is a film-maker who can genuinely be described as a visionary, and thus far he has got it right every time. From ballroom dancing in the award-winning Strictly Ballroom to the Bard’s “star-cross’d lovers” in the acclaimed Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann has yet to put a foot wrong.
Now comes his latest unorthodox move, Australia: an epic ode to his homeland. A vast undertaking, this is not only a romance but also a War film and a Western: it is a collage of cinematic form. At its heart though, as in all great epics, lies the love story: the unlikely pairing of Nicole Kidman’s aristocratic Englishwoman, Lady Sarah Ashley, and Hugh Jackman’s hardy herdsman. The latter is a sort of Clint Eastwood meets Crocodile Dundee figure, named simply ‘Drover’. They are stock characters; Kidman is a truly absurd caricature of English aristocracy and Jackman is a rough diamond with a heart of gold but a body of steel.
This is an epic trying to live up to the example of the sumptuous cinematic feasts of David Lean, in particular Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as well as Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939). Luhrmann uses to full effect the truly awesome natural advantage afforded him by his titular location and so creates some of the greatest shots that we will see this year or the next.
However, behind this cinematic bluff lies a film that never matches its great predecessors. The cinematography may indeed be truly awe-inspiring but the film itself is let down by heavy handed screenwriting, desperate to impart on us the tale’s moral to the point of condescension. We will surely never forget that Clark Gable didn’t “give a damn” or that “it would have been lovely if we’d met before” for Zhivago and Lara, but will we in quite the same way remember that ‘Drover’ enlightened us with his “welcome to Australia”?
Something in me wants to be proved wrong here, because Australia is not a bad film. Overblown, overlong and over-budget, the film is no masterpiece, but it is hugely enjoyable. Luhrmann is a long way from stealing Lean’s crown as the epic director and Kidman and Jackman may not be toppling Clark Gable, Peter O’Toole or Omar Sharif any time soon, but Australia is a visual feast and in spite of its heavy script is eminently watchable. It could lose a good half-hour and gain a little more direction, but it is driven by quite brilliant vision and some very strong performances. Not least is that of our narrator, a debutant plucked from obscurity by Baz himself for the role, thirteen-year-old Brandon Walters, who plays the young aboriginal adoptee of ‘Drover’ and Lady Ashley.
Australia is quite some spectacle and though it may never enter the canon of great romantic epics it is an ode to a nation with a troubled history and identity. There is a sense of catharsis in this film for its Australian cast and direction team as well as the thousands of Australians flocking to see the film already. This is an enjoyable if flawed film, and one that means a lot to a lot of people, not least, lest we forget, the Australian tourist board who will enjoy perhaps even more than us the glorious and inspirational panoramas that dominate Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.