Monday, 1 December 2008
Baz Luhrmann, writer, director and producer of Australia, promised an ‘epic’ and epic is what he delivers. Starting pre-war in 1939 with the arrival of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole) on a Qantas flight from England, it finishes with the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1941. In between time we drove 1,500 head of cattle from Faraway Downs station onto the ship in Darwin harbour with The Drover (Hugh Jackman), have the boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters) taken to Mission Island, as was the experience of many coloured and native children, have The Drover and Lady Sarah fall in love, be separated and then reunited, all the while compete with the voracious and avaricious King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his son in law Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), rival cattle barons and acquisitive land owners.
The thread of the story however belongs to Nullah, his ties to the land and his people. When his mother dies, he is left in the care of Lady Sarah who adopts him as her son.
The opening Act, that of Lady Sarah coming to Australia and to her property at Faraway Downs, is filled with vaudeville as Luhrmann plays up much of the Australian larrikin sense of humour. The Drover (whom we first meet looking up from under his hat a la Clint Eastwood) is centre stage for a brawling fist fight outside the hotel; Lady Sarah’s English ‘tourist’ is excited by her first sighting of a kangaroo; Jack Thompson’s inarticulate entrance.
The film really represents two distinct story arcs : the drove, and war-time. The Drover, clearly a white man, is a friend of the blacks and is seen as “black” by white society, and therefore shunned. Nullah, born of a white father and black mother, is seen as neither one nor the other by each race. The film goes to some pains to incorporate themes of the stolen generation, black dreaming and segregation but it is a testament to how well the story is told without it ever feeling like a ‘message’ movie. There is even an acknowledgement that the most sympathetic of white fellas, The Drover (and even, by inference, the filmmaker) doesn’t always fully understand. Take for example the confrontation between The Drover and his best mate, Magarri, after Nullah is taken by the Police. Even with the best of understanding, a child remains a child and should be protected and cared for by loving parents, not left to their own devices where they can unwittingly get themselves into trouble.
Nicole is fine as an English lady staring down a strange and remote environment. That English resolve is demonstrated here which founded a whole Empire. Hugh Jackman is a little too ocker (one too many “crikey’s”) but otherwise entirely believable as a hairy, sweaty, manly cattle drover who believes in mateship but is fearful of expressing his emotions. There is chemistry between these two and thankfully Luhrmann doesn’t throw in a gratuitous love scene just to please the formula writer. What is shown on screen is quite appropriate.
Brandon Walters is the real find of this film. He is such a handsome boy who is able to look into the camera with such innocence and openness. His manner, and the character he is playing, is so assured however he does not lose that vulnerable and childlike manner.
David Wenham does menacing better than most and the rest of the support performances are great : David Ngoombujarra (as Magarri), Jack Thompson (as Kipling Flynn, Lady Ashley’s accountant), plus old favourites, Barry Otto, Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Spence and David Gulpilil.
While Australia is not a complex story, it is entertaining, takes us on a fun and dramatic journey and is most assuredly recommended.