Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008)
In Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996), the oft-repeated and replicated Shakespearean romance, including the famous playwright's hefty Victorian grammar and vocabulary, is lifted from the streets of medieval Verona into the contemporary Verona, an anonymous suburb in the middle of the United States. The gimmick effectively creates an illusion of heightened romanticism within the confines of present-day America, where undying pledges of love and prolonged vendettas are uncommon, thus, making movie-going romantics swoon despite the improbability of Luhrmann's experimentation. In Moulin Rouge! (2001), Luhrmann infuses another love-against-all-odds tale set in 1899 Paris between an impoverished poet and an in-demand courtesan with contemporary pop and rock songs. It feels like a hyperactive and sometimes incoherent mess: an overproduced MTV where women dance in tight corsets and men sing in bright trenchcoats. For me, it's a guilty pleasure.
Baz Luhrmann's directing style involves a lot of pomp, a lot of spectacle, a lot of unabashed lavishness. His films are enjoyable precisely because it skirts realism for grandiosity, converting what typically would be commonplace tales in commonplace settings into invites to an alternate universe where humanity is driven by passion (more often than not, in insanely large doses), enough for dancers to equate ballroom dancing with love and life (in Strictly Ballroom (1992)); or for young lovers to utter declarations of love in old English; or for turn-of-the-century Parisians to belt out hits by Madonna, Bono, the Beatles, among others.
Australia, Luhrmann's latest, is tame compared to his previous excesses. There are no musical interludes, no outdated verbose dialogues, no fierce dance-offs to salvage what essentially are two-dimensional characters interacting in borrowed storylines. Instead, Luhrmann mines from what seems to be an immense national pride, casting two of the continent's most internationally familiar faces in another love story that defies all odds set during a pertinent portion of Australia's history. As a result, Australia suffers from an unwieldy heft: a need to be epic in scope because of its desire to be relevant.
Hence, the film's central romance is fitted right in the middle of the impending Pacific War and the plight of the stolen generations, sons and daughters of aboriginal mothers and White fathers who are forced out of their families by the church in order to cleanse them of their so-called savage lineage (Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) offers a sincerer and more accurate depiction of these stolen generations). To convince her husband to sell their cattle ranch, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from her leisurely estate in England to Faraway Downs in the middle of the Australian wildernesses, only to find out that her husband has been murdered, and their ranch is nearly bankrupt under the management of Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), who double agents for King Carney, owner of the largest cattle ranch in the continent. In order to reverse the misfortunes of Faraway Downs, Sarah Ashley is forced to drive her ranch's best cattle into the port town of Darwin to win the contract with the government to supply beef to the war-ready army. Along the way, she becomes surrogate mother to Nullah (Brandon Walters), half-breed son of Fletcher and an aboriginal woman, and falls deeply in love with Drover (Hugh Jackman), who agrees to help her drive her cattle to Darwin.
The problem is Luhrmann does not have the requisite discipline or integrity to mount such an exercise. The immensely overt emotionality is in fact, shallow. Its historical deft feels highly artificial, more like a backdrop rather than a genuine interest. The sensuality is almost non-existent, with Luhrmann floundering on attempts to pump the romance with amorous verve. With Australia, Luhrmann's excesses feel more like padding than style and quirk. It's still sometimes entertaining, but to be sure, Australia is just hardly the film it was imagined to be.