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Monday, December 01, 2008


Australia: The ModFab Review

Twentieth Century Fox (165 Minutes)
Starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, and David Wenham
Written by Stuart Beattie, Richard Flanagan, Ronald Harwood and Baz Luhrmann
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Six years in developmental exile has done little to dim the lustre of Baz Luhrmann, the trés-theatrical film director whose "Red Curtain trilogy" -- the farcical Strictly Ballroom, a modern-dress Romeo and Juliet, and the delirious pastiche Moulin Rouge! -- established him as one of the most exciting mainstream directors of the era. A scuttled biography of Alexander the Great wasted much of the time since then (Oliver Stone beat him to it), but Luhrmann has spent the last three years bringing the enormous, sweeping romance Australia to the screen. Wait, scratch that. Australia should really be called a comedy. No, a Western. No, a war movie. No, a period epic. No, a...well, perhaps it's better if we forgo classification. Luhrmann, after all, just tends to throw such things into a Cusinart and press the button marked "pureé".

Audiences, and some critics, have found it difficult over the years to keep up with Luhrmann's genre-blending cultural appropriation, which draws as much from Hollywood mythology as from any true history. (Luhrmann's previous films all received mixed critical reaction in their initial releases, only to find wide appreciation after DVD rentals and multiple viewings.) Australia seems unlikely to break the pattern; it suffers, as Luhrmann's works do, from preconceived expectations and wild shifts in tone and mood. But for any true fan of movies, Australia is a wildly enjoyable experience, reconstituting some of the great traditions of the art form in engaging, unexpected ways.

To illuminate this intricate tale of Northern Australia's cattle ranches, its race relations, and its war-torn history after Pearl Harbor, Luhrmann borrows heavily from the Golden Age of Cinema: Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, Giant, Lawrence of Arabia, and The African Queen all serve as spiritual ancestors here. In the Humphrey Bogart role of charasmatic scoundrel is Hugh Jackman, playing Drover, a cowboy with an independent streak and a swaggering machismo. As foil and romantic interest, his uptight Hepburn is Nicole Kidman, enjoying the prim fussiness of Lady Sarah Ashley, a British widow who comes to sell her husband's Australian cattle ranch. Their feisty interchanges are played against an epic landscape straight out of David Lean; there's even repeated use of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," the iconic song from The Wizard Of Oz. If you're a movie lover, this rich stew should have you salivating.

If you're a purist, however, stay away. Australia has a careening romanticism and a kitchen-sink production design, which creates an overblown sensibility throughout its nearly 3-hour running time. Let me be clear: Australia is overstated, obvious, ostentatious, and overstuffed. David Hirschfelder's score tramples scene after scene with booming orchestrations, and the Western cliches become nearly laughable at times. It isn't as ripe and juicy as Moulin Rouge!, but rural Australia isn't quite as lush as fin de siecle France. The picture is, in almost every way, a broadly-drawn exercise in style. You probably already know if that interests you or not...and if not, see something else.

For the rest of you...indulge, and enjoy. Catherine Martin should win another Oscar or two for her breathtaking costumes and production design. Dody Dorn's editing makes the most of the glorious vistas and location shooting. As for the performers, Jackman clearly revels in his anachronistic role, which bears similarity to the parts that first brought him global acclaim (X-Men's Wolverine and, in the West End, his award-winning performance in Oklahoma!). Kidman is on shakier ground; Lady Ashley needs a Vivien Leigh-ish softness at times, a quality Kidman is too sharp-edged to manage. She comes alive, however, in testy banter with Jackman and David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings), who gets surprising mileage out of a dastardly land baron.

The title character is perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Luhrmann's iconoclastic vision, though. Rarely has the continent, or any continent, found such languid and exquisite documentation on celluloid. The romance in the foreground may be thin at times, but there, in the background, Australia finds its scope and its grandeur. Mountains, endless dry plains, and a sky so perfect it must be CGI...that's the fantasy, and the reality, that Luhrmann is selling. And it's a marvel when you realize that this great artist can't distinguish between the two. A marvel, and a gift.
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Blogger gabrieloak said...

I thought Australia was very entertaining and a wonderful tribute to old movies. And Jackman has never been sexier on screen. I thought he played well opposite Kidman but he needed someone a little more enticing opposite him to build up the heat. So glad I watched this on a big screen.

12/1/08, 6:35 PM  
Blogger ZenDenizen said...

Someone else to build up more heat? Hmmm Jake Gyllenhal (SP?) :)

12/2/08, 12:58 PM  

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