November 26, 2008


North by 'Pearl Harbor'

Grade: B –

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, Jack Thompson, and David Wenham

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

It is difficult to decide whether Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is more a love letter to the land Down Under or to Hollywood. Repeated references to “The Wizard of Oz,” and recurring Over the Rainbow musical cues, serve as proof of the latter, the irony being that Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic has little in common with Australia besides being released around the same time Luhrmann’s latest cinematic concoction is set.

For more direct evidence, however, look no further than film epics ranging from Gone with the Wind to Out of Africa. There are echoes of each reverberating throughout, but it is the plot to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (itself cobbling from a plethora of classic Hollywood Westerns) that strikes the most familiar chord. In each film, an urbane lady leaves her affluent life of comfort to follow her husband’s financial ambition to the middle of a sparsely inhabited wilderness, only to discover, upon arrival, that her husband has been killed by a rival business tycoon who frames the murder on an innocent native. The lady chooses to carry on her husband’s venture, enlisting the assistance of an independent, untamed man to combat the tycoon and his hired guns.

It was all about railroads and the American West in Leone’s opus. In Luhrmann’s saga, it’s the beef industry in pre-World War II Australia, with Nicole Kidman starring as British noblewoman turned cattle magnet Lady Sarah Ashley and Hugh Jackman as a scruffy drover with no name. With a collection of misfits, including a half-caste boy (Brandon Walters), they embark on a cattle drive across the dusty outback bound for the port city of Darwin.

Luhrmann – a native Aussie – rehashes three of the techniques he employed to great effect in Moulin Rouge! and his Leo DiCaprio Romeo + Juliet update: lush visuals; humorous, frenetic editing; and an eye for love. Although frequently CGI-accented, Luhrmann’s photography here is consistently stunning, offering a romanticized rendering of Australia. Kidman and Jackson have rarely looked more fetching, even smeared with grit and grim, and Luhrmann gives their characters the time and filmmaking tools to develop a classic (and sometimes corny) movie romance.

The overarching thematic addendum is Luhrmann’s spotlight on the traditionally hostile relationship between Aboriginals and Australian’s white settlers. Luhrmann does not shy from depicting the subordination, even mistreatment of dark-skinned natives, and he goes a step further by focusing on the mixed-race Nullah (Walters), son of an Aboriginal servant and a white ranch-hand-turned-vile henchman (David Wenham), whom Lady Ashley defies social convention by giving a home. Anyone who has seen Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence knows this is not new cinematic territory, including the long-standing governmental policy of involuntarily segregating half-castes into indoctrination camps – the so-called “Stolen Generation” – that figures in the film’s elongated final act. Still, in the year of Obama and a number of films with miscegenation as a secondary conceit (HancockLakeview Terrace, and even Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa), there is a timeliness to the issue, even if that purpose leads Luhrmann to over-mysticize Nullah and his grandfather, a notorious witch doctor named King George (David Gulpilil) (a trope Hollywood has been applying to African-American characters for decades).

Where fact meets folly is in Australia’s final act, which revolves around the 1942 Japanese bombing of Darwin. All but Tara burns to the ground, and drover Rhett races back to save Scarlett and her little adopted boy, too. It is a bloated, contrived denouement that jettisons any residue of Luhrmann’s unique vision in exchange for pure Hollywood tripe meandering in search of a fitting finale (indeed, Luhrmann’s original ending was lambasted by test audiences as too much of a downer, forcing the director to shoot a substitute).

In truth, Australia is half a great movie steeped in both history and Hollywood mythos that elevates a setting too often relegated to kitsch like Crocodile Dundee and Kangaroo Jack. Unfortunately, its natural endpoint – as hokey as the scene in which the Drover cleans himself up and barges into a well-heeled, black-tie soiree to reclaim his lady might be – is trumped by the 45 minutes of bombastic, exhausting trifle that follows it. By the time the screen finally fades to black, frankly, my dear, you won’t give a damn.

Neil Morris

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