Monday, January 26, 2009

'Australia': somewhere over the rainbow

Australia - Official Movie Trailer

It seemed fitting to see Baz Luhrmann’s movie Australia on the Australia Day long weekend. The opening credits tell us that it's about the stolen generations, an aboriginal story set against a backdrop of cattle empires, love and war. It has been promoted as an old style blockbuster and its sheer length and star cast put it in that territory.

It is more adventure and romance than historical epic. A Western in northern Australia. The Man from Snowy River meets Wagon Train with a touch of Gone with the Wind and High Noon. Nicole Kidman (any relation to the real-life cattle baron?) as Lady Sarah Ashley has the icy, priggish edge of Grace Kelly. The bombing of Darwin owes a lot to the burning of Atlanta. Hugh Jackman as Drover combines Henry Fonda's outsider with John Wayne's brawler.

Perhaps it should have been a musical as it relies for much of its thematic development on The Wizard of Oz. Baz isn’t afraid of this pun or many others. We even have Somewhere Over The Rainbow evoking the rainbow serpent of the aboriginal dreaming. The tune is used more often than Waltzing Matilda during the story. Nullah (Brandon Walters) is the film’s own Dorothy. He follows his quest, firstly droving a stock route and finally embarking on a journey to his grandfather’s country for initiation ceremonies. He even watches Judy Garland at an outdoor cinema in Darwin.

If you're looking for a geography lesson, forget it. The country is all over the place. 'Far Away Downs' isn't 'Victoria River Downs'. It is strangely located near the 'Never Never', an unlikely desert in Top End Oz. Nevertheless, the landscapes are extraordinary, featuring the best of the Kimberley and other northern locations. The spectacular views of ancient escarpments and national icons, such as the Mitchell falls and the Bungle Bungle, are themselves worth the ticket price.

If this is an historical romance, forget the history lesson. Darwin is a visual treat with all the splendour of Moulin Rouge. It displays Baz's knack for bold, stylised, over-designed sets.

The bombing of Darwin in February 1942 has little to do with reality. The Hotel Darwin, which survived the bombing only to be demolished in 1999, is nowhere to be seen. There is no reference to the mass desertion by troops and little mention of looting. The Japanese troops on Mission Island are pure fiction.

The indigenous history is politically correct and has only a small number of annoying anomalies and inaccuracies. David Gulpilil as King George represents aboriginal culture before European occupation. He dominates the film as always, though the narration is left to young Brandon. Gulpilil's witch doctor mirrors the Wizard of Oz. The young mixed-race boy Nullah foreshadows the future for many Arnhem Land people, living in two cultures, clinging to their dreaming and identity in a world dominated by white bosses.

Luhrmann or one of his writing team is obviously a fan of Xavier Herbert. Much of the plot and theme draws on his novels. Lady Sarah's horse is Capricornia and the grog is Poor Fella Rum. Poor Fellow My Country is one of the longest novels in the English language so an analysis of similarities would be tiresome. Herbert has a credit.

The cast includes a Who’s-Who of Australian actors. Hugh Jackman is thoroughly PC, a 21st Century Gary Cooper, taking both an aborigine and a woman into the local hotel’s public bar. He breaks traditions that would last till the late 1960s in both cases. Hugh is no Clark Gable and his romance with Nicole lacks the fire or the depth of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara’s passionate clash.

Jack Thompson’s performance as a good-hearted drunk is mercifully short. David Wenham makes an excellent villain with all the requisite longstanding resentments. Bryan Brown is typecast as the tough, ruthless cattle king with a latent conscience.

Of the other indigenous actors, Ursula Yovich as Nullah's mother Daisy and David Ngoombujarra as Magarri give the strongest performances. Their characters' heroic self-sacrifices are high and low points of the storytelling.

Australia is a story about aboriginal dispossession and forced assimilation. However, this is not a political history. Its “truths” are simple and much disputed by commentators who attack the “black armband” view of history. Usually without any sense of irony!

We enjoyed the film for what it really offers: a sentimental journey. This is Jedda with a happy ending that is never in doubt.


  1. I've wondered that about Nicole Kidman as well.

  2. I much prefer her non-romantic roles.