Baz Luhrmann's Australia succeeds with a wink
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Baz Luhrmann's Australia succeeds with a wink
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

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Baz Luhrmann is a thief. And he steals from a rich reservoir of past cinema. He steals small moments and entire narrative arcs giving both subtle new twists. You get a little Out of Africa, Wizard of Oz, The Cowboys, Gone with the Wind, In Harm's Way, The Lord of the Rings, and many more. I know I'm missing some allusions here but that's one of the best things about a good movie; we have forever to watch it over and over, finding fun new details. Luhrmann steals, but he steals fairly well.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) leaves her comfy English estate to follow her husband to their cattle station in the fabled Australian outback. She arrives to find her husband dead and a villainous neighbor cattle baron intent on taking over Far Away Downs, the aforementioned cattle station. Lady Sarah must drive her herd to Darwin in order to sell them and save the ranch. She strikes a deal with a handsome and hirsute drover (Hugh Jackman) to enlist his assistance on the arduous journey. Then Darwin gets bombed. Okay, a few other things also happen during the two-and-a-half-hour film.

The problem here is that Luhrmann wants it both ways. He wants to make a sweeping melodramatic epic and he wants it to be clever and unconventional. Even if the story is predictable and sappy, he gets damn close. I think Australia will have a long life being kicked around by film geeks as small purposeful details start to bubble up on repeated screenings, details like the hilarious objectification of the male body, the purposefully overblown and quite beautiful CGI, and the subtle (perhaps too subtle) re-imagining of the classic epic. Though the story isn't really anything new; it's the music, the photography, the star power, and the magic that attempt to steal this show.

I know some critics are going to finger wag about the "look what I can do!" CGI. They will ramble on about how it's beautiful, but it doesn't look real. And they'll be correct. It is beautiful and it doesn't look real. I just don't see why that's a problem. Frankly, I'm not madly in love with the cinema because I want it to look real all the time. Sure, I love the Maysles brothers, but sometimes I want to be reminded that movies can also be pure magic. And nobody seems to complain that Moulin Rouge doesn't look real. But that movie is obvious in its game; we know from the opening frame that we are someplace purely cinematic. Australia may be less obvious with its excesses and its gentle nudging of reality may be a tenuous device for many viewers, but Luhrmann seems to know where he wants his film to land. And I'm fine with that.

It's not just the CGI that looks artificially beautiful; the stars do, too. Nicole Kidman wears dirt and tweed like nobody ever has on the silver screen. She's lithe and porcelain and fragile and indestructible at the same time. She is timeless like Catherine Deneuve, Audrey Hepburn, and Harvey Fierstein.

Hugh Jackman puts the man back in manly with his shirtless swagger and million-dollar smile. If this doesn't make Queer men everywhere stop shaving their chests, nothing will. In another example of his tweaking Hollywood's nose by toying with convention, it's Jackman's big hot body that gets objectified instead of Kidman's. At one point, Jackman strikes a shirtless pose straight out of an old Physique Pictorial that made me laugh out loud. Though I was the only person in the theater that laughed, I didn't care because it was funny as shit and alone worth at least half the price of admission.

Luhrmann tackles the removal of half-caste children, children of European and Aboriginal decent collectively referred to as The Stolen Generations, from their homes with simple side story of Nulla (Brandon Walters). Nulla is a half-caste child who forms an unlikely family unit with Lady Sarah and the drover. Their little family is spiritually connected to mysterious King George (David Gulpilil who also starred in a better movie about the Stolen Generations, Rabbit-proof Fence) who serves as their guardian angel along the way. Nulla and King George figure prominently in the ending, an ending that many will not like. However, if read as allegory the ending becomes a definitive, if preachy, comment on cultural identity.

Whether poking a stick at the bloated underbelly of international ballroom dance competition, dragging Shakespeare through the postmodern muck, or re-inventing the musical in the form of an affectionate "Dear John" letter to modernist France, Luhrmann has demonstrated that he knows how to get just close enough to a genre to give it sly kick and knowing wink. Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge are cinematically sublime and Romeo + Juliet is ultimately less successful but still a good ride and nice to look at. Australia falls somewhat closer to the latter in its ultimate success.

Australia is a true epic film. Luhrmann has made an expansive hybrid movie that is part Western, part war movie, and all melodramatic romance. I admit the story, stripped of all the fancy filmmaking, is actually rather insipid (the same can be said of Moulin Rouge) and I don't care. I like this movie. However, you should see it on the big screen in order to properly enjoy it in all its lovely excess. Go to the theater ready to kick back and enjoy a grand style epic film with a big tub of popcorn smothered in fake butter flavoring. You will find Australia's CGI to be oddly reminiscent of the fake butter flavoring; it's probably not good for you, but it's probably not that bad either.