There is an abundance of negative publicity surrounding Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, ‘Australia’.
Criticism of ‘Australia’ seems to be strongest from the high brow movie watcher who appear guilty of a local cringe factor. It puts me in mind of the national consciousness in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony where a similar negativity was leapt upon by a waiting media, always happy to push any measure of bad news. And with headlines that scream “Australia disappoints at box office”, who can resist a knowing nod?
With a reported cost of $130m to make and promote the film, there is no doubt that this one film has cost more than any other Australian film. Coupled with a calculated business drive to promote the film heavily, which is unusual for Australian films, the nation’s “tall poppy syndrome” has been quick to set in.
Luhrmann’s use of Australian actors is welcome and his portrayal of outback landscapes is appealing. It is no wonder that Tourism Australia were keen to align themselves to his vision.
Despite the high price tag and popular nature of this film it has been far from a failure. In its first week alone its box office takings were in the order of $10m in Australia alone. It will run for a few weeks yet into the summer holidays and that figure doesn’t take into account any overseas takings either.
Contrast this with the Australian films nominated in the Best Film category at last weekend’s Australian Film Institute awards : The Black Balloon, The Jammed, The Square and Unfinished Sky. Have you heard of any of these films? Let alone actually watched any of them? Perhaps you have heard of The Black Balloon (which won best picture) or Joel & Nash Edgerton’s The Square, and that because they were advertised in some way more than the others. Their combined box office takings however are $3.9m. Total.
Furthermore their themes are broadly consistent with many Australian films of recent times, darker in tone and more serious in nature. By all accounts they are very fine films but do I, as a potential audience member, get excited about the prospect of seeing something dour and downbeat? To be sure, I will be watching these films as they hit our DVD shelves, if for no other reason than because they are Australian films, but don’t tell me that somehow they are success stories (other than the actual success of getting them made which is no small feat in and of itself) while ‘Australia’ is a failure. In every way ‘Australia’ outpoints these other films: in its profile, its popular sensibility and its takings.
The Nicole factor
The other reaction against ‘Australia’ is that of Nicole Kidman. For some reason she is ‘on the nose’ of Australian audiences and that is counting against the film.
As you all know, I am a fan of Nicole and have been for a long time and I don’t back away from that now.
I think the reasons for this anti-Nicole sentiment is two fold. The first is her tabloid profile and regular folks are heartily sick of seeing her mug on the cover of every women’s magazine. Being married to Tom Cruise placed her in the echelon of uber-celebrity and she has been a target ever since.
As an adjunct to that, facial surgery in early 2000s, initially (I believe) to reshape her nose and since then, who knows what else, has resulted in a face with no blemish or wrinkle. Certainly the absence of any “laughter lines” or the like give opportunity for people to complain of an expressionless, “plastic” face. Ironically she has the appearance of a Stepford Wife, a role she played in 2004.
Secondly, the movies in which she has played a part in recent years have not been either critically or popularly acclaimed.
Kidman’s great film roles occurred around the time of her break up with Cruise and which garnered a Best Actress Oscar : The Hours, Dogville, The Human Stain, Cold Mountain and Birth. The dark subject matter was more than met with the dark moods of her personal life. They were powerful and serious storylines.
Since then, lighter tones and more popular offerings that sadly have been less impressive: The Stepford Wives, The Interpreter, Bewitched, Fur, The Invasion and Margot at the Wedding.
All I will say in defence of Kidman and her choice of roles is that she takes risks. I can only imagine that an actress with her profile would be offered countless roles in blockbuster, ‘James Bond’ type movies. The fact that she has done very few of those types of films, and none recently, should be marked as a credit but it is not recognised.
For example, with Fur, she took the opportunity to work with director Steven Shainberg whose previous success was with the controversial and independent film Secretary. Fur turned about to be a bit too quirky for its own good.
Margot, to work with Noah Baumbach whose previous success was with The Squid and the Whale. Margot was a hard script to work through and would have sunk irrespective of the cast.
I believe that the opportunity to work on an Australian film and support the local industry was behind her motivation to work on ‘Australia’ and before that ‘Happy Feet.’
I tend to judge the success of an actor very simply. If, at the end of a movie, I am satisfied that I believed what I was seeing, then it’s a ‘pass’. It is my opinion that Kidman remains a fine actress although not every film she has appeared in, has worked.
In conclusion, I comfortably rate ‘Australia’ as a 3 out of 4 star movie. The fact that it is an Australian film that highlights our history and addresses some of our current day issues is to be celebrated and enjoyed.
You can read my review of 'Australia' here.