Truthfully, I did not have high hopes for this film. I do rate the director Baz Luhrmann, being a secret fan of Moulin Rouge and a vocal advocate of what he did for Romeo & Juliet. Never seen Strictly Ballroom – god willing, I never will. My concerns were not based on Baz. Nor, to be fair, were they dwelling on Hugh Jackman who, despite having questionable script choice, is not a bad film actor when cast well and that Kidman can act is not exactly a newsflash. On paper the constituent parts of this film look like they could work.
No, my concern was the concept. A 1940s style sprawling epic shot in Australia and centring on the run up to the Japanese attack on Darwin did not seem to this reviewer to be an obvious choice for the Baz Luhrmann. Indeed, recalling the last such attempt (albeit by another director) to recreate this kind of epic film making the only film I could bring to mind was Legends of the Fall. I have not watched that film in at least five years, largely because it’s like an endurance test.
Early reviews seemed to bear out my opinion and so I wasn’t really planning on seeing this film. It was quite by accident I found myself in the cinema with G and some friends, settling down to watch the bloody thing.
Australia is not about Australia. Australia is about a small boy, Nullah played by Brandon Walters, who has the misfortune to be born of mixed race (part aboriginal and part European) at a time in Australia’s history where the government segregated such children. The purpose of this exercise was supposedly to “re-educate” the children and prevent them from being “contaminated” with aboriginal beliefs. Walters narrates the story of how he goes from boy to man.
And what a story it is. Eccentric English ladies, mystical medicine men, world war, corrupt beef ranchers, murderous fathers, high adventure and a prickly rogue who underneath it all is a stand up bloke. It sounds silly doesn’t it?
To be honest it is. Combining a huge smorgasbord of clichés and giving it to a director renowned for high camp, hyper real, critically acclaimed treatments of films does not seem to be a recipe for success. And to be honest at points between him and Kidman he nearly manages to kill the film.
Recognising the need to seduce the audience into this sprawling epic gently, the first act contains generous amounts of the humour and high camp we’ve come to expect from Baz. However, Kidman’s performance is too much of a caricature and the over stylising simply didn’t fit – it took me out of the film. I can see what she was trying to do but it really didn’t work because she just didn’t seem natural in the way she does in other performances. Only when the cast moved onto the desert did the film and Kidman settle down.
The rest of the film moves, for the most part, with the degree of skill and flexing of styles that I’ve come to expect from Baz’s films. Although I can understand why the untidy multi-tiered ending leaving the audience confused as to why the film carried ongoing. To be fair, this is largely due to the zealot like adherence in Hollywood to the three act narrative structure and so I’m sympathetic to Baz’s desire to break out of that straight jacket. I’m just not sure he succeeds.
The steady hands of ex-LOTR star David Wenham as the murderous father show the value of good casting and I look forward to seeing him in a role that stretches him. I think he’s got potential. Hugh Jackman is good because he’s basically playing Hugh Jackman but that’s fine because frankly he’s at his best when playing Hugh Jackman. He clearly knows his value judging from the way he plays up to some of the shots and judging from the sighs from most of the women in the audience he’s not wrong. And yes: G sighed as well – alarmingly.
The real star of the movie is not a name you would recognise. Brandon Walters plays the boy and narrator. A small boy being asked to carry the vast majority of the film in a genre that’s pretty much been in deep stasis (if not actually extinct) for a number of years is a tall task. That he pulls it off is astonishing. That he does it with aplomb is breathtaking. An emotionally nuanced performance that carried the audience on a rollercoaster of laughter, drama and sadness that in and of itself is a reason to watch this movie.
And I surprised myself: I enjoyed it. I really did.