“Australia”: The never never far away land of magic

This tender picture is moments before Darwin isn't bombed.

This tender picture is moments before Darwin isn't bombed.

I saw four movies on Thanksgiving Day: Twilight, Quantum of Solace and Australia. Wait, isn’t that three? You might be asking yourselves. Not only is Australia as long as two movies, Baz Luhrman, the visionary director, couldn’t decide what movie he wanted to make more, so he made both of them.

On one end Australia is a fairy tale, with real and intriguing magic and lore. Full of locations with names that make you feel like you stepped into Peter Pan or The Wizard of Oz, which is referenced in the movie not only through song, a silly retelling of the story and showing the actual movie but also from lifting the general plot out of Oz and grafting it onto the film; that being a group of eccentric characters travel together across a dangerous landscape so they can find themselves and beat the bad guys.

Our Dorothy is Lady Sarah Ashley, played by Nicole Kidman, who has much more to contend with than making sure her dog gets along safely with her. Nope, Lady Ashley instead has a herd of 1500 cattle to push across the vast open expanses of Australia in oder to save her dead husband’s ranch.

She ends up hiring a scruffy driver called Drover, Hugh Jackman at his tip top best. And they enlist a group of hands just as colorful as Scarecroew, Lion and the Tin Man. The one hand that is also at the center of the film is an Aboriginal boy, Nullah, played with a doe eyed curiosity and intensity by the really good Brandon Walters. Nullah you see is a “creamy”. The offspring of a white aristocratic father and an aboriginal woman.Lashy Ahsley becomes a surrogate Mother, and Drover takes a step back. This is the love triangle.

The half bred children, as we’re told at the beginning in the form of credits, were often forced from their homes and taken to missions where the “aboriginal half” was preached and bred out of them.  But that’s not the beginning of the movie and not really what the first half of the movie is about at all. We’re also told in the credits that Darwin, Australia was hit the day after Pearl Harbor was hit by the Japanese. But this really isn’t important either through most of the story. In fact WWII is barely mentioned through most of the film, and you realize the only reason why they mention it at all in the beginning is so it isn’t a slap across the face later on.

Actually the film doesn’t know where it wants to begin, which was troubling, as after this it never really felt like Luhrman knew what story he wanted to tell most. It’s a very mystical, serious opening with talk of magic before we’re skipped across the pond to Britain where we meet Lady Ashley for the first time. And it suddenly becomes a cross between Bringing Up Baby , The African Queen, and Moulin Rouge. There were many moments in which I felt like I should have been entertained, and I did laugh once or twice, but oddly enough, I felt uncomfortable doing so. The sudden shift in tone left me more confused than anything. And all I could wonder to myself as I sat there was, why are they trying so hard?

What was the point of this hop skip and jump. Did we have to follow her all the way back from point “A”. Probably not. It’s sloppy, indecisive storytelling. And this gets in the way several more times. Kidman is all over the place performance wise, letting Luhrman’s direction swing her around (good for her for trusting him so much!). Jackman doesn’t let the shift in tone disturb his gruff performance. The kid is great! But for a long time it’s silly fun…too silly perhaps. Which would be fine if the whole movie clung to this.

Once  we get away form the voice over and time shifts, and the plot kicks in, there are some rousing moments. Incredibly entertaining ones. Incredibly romantic ones. Then, uh, what? Oh…no, wait…

Luhrman seems to grow weary of the story he is telling, and gives way to a war story. The heavy color saturation of the first half of the film gives way to a monochromatic gaze over the second half as we know the Japanese bombers are coming…and we wait for them to come…and we wait for them to come…and wait…and wait…okay. Where are the bombers? You said they were coming. This is what you told us. Oh, wait, more set up. This and that happens. You see where he’s going, okay, that makes sense. Everybody is where they need to be for the final act. Then the planes come.

By the third act you realize how bold a movie Luhrman was trying to make. How all the pieces are fit together nicely, threads carry over from the first half to the second, how the visuals are as dynamic as the characters relationships, how even when you see the set up and execution for a dramatic moment coming from a mile away it’s still enjoyable, but as a machine, as a story from beginning to end, it just doesn’t quite work.

By the end of the film all I wanted was for it to be over, and there were ten minutes left.

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