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AICN Downunder: Latauro Vs. Baz Luhrmann's AUSTRALIA!

Greetings. I thought I'd take a break from my temporary AICN sabbatical ("Who are you supposed to be?" asks most of the readership) to drop in a review. I've been sitting on a half-finished FROST/NIXON review for about a month -- for reasons I'll go into when I finally submit my review -- but as AICN's Australian correspondent, it's fitting that I should return to review the largeness that is... AUSTRALIA.

Opinion calibration time: I like Baz Luhrmann, but don't love him. I like STRICTLY BALLROOM, ROMEO + JULIET and MOULIN ROUGE!, but I've never once connected to his work or felt compelled to revisit it. His style is too obviously on display; the bangs and the whiz-pow is put there on the screen, and manages to obfuscate any genuine emotion that may come through. At most, I've enjoyed his films whilst feeling completely disconnected from them.

There is a very skeptical sense about this film permeating the country. Just how Australian can a US$100+million film funded by 20th Century Fox and starring two Hollywood-acceptable matinee idols be? Depends; how African can a song by Toto be? Despite this, and despite my feelings about Baz's film, and despite what is frequently referred to as Australia's tall poppy syndrome, I still had hopes for this film. It felt as if Baz might actually tone down the elements that have bothered me about his earlier work, and go somewhere new as a filmmaker. It felt like AUSTRALIA might just be a truly great, truly epic film that they were pitching it as.

It's not.

It's a complete and utter mess.

Baz Luhrmann has not toned down his in-your-face excessiveness. Somehow, even in the middle of the Northern Territory, he's ramped them up. The majority of this film is played like a pantomime, with actors clearly directed to give the most outlandish performances possible. And none of them work.

Actually, I'll make an exception: Brandon Walters, the kid who plays Nullah in the film, or the "half-caste". I have no desire to be politically correct, or magnanimous towards an unknown child actor, so I'll be completely frank: Walters is the best thing about the film. The kid was discovered for this part, and gives easily the best performance in the entire thing. He's pretty much the only actor that comes out of this thing with any dignity intact, which is no mean feat given (a) how good many of the actors are, and (b) how badly they seem to have been directed.

Yes, this film is a who's who of Australian actors. Not only is every speaking part given to a notable local actor, but when somebody on the production clearly realised that Bill Hunter wasn't in it, they gave him a part that lasts for a total of one shot. Yes, the excessiveness seeps into every pore, here.

The film simply doesn't work. It's too eagre to be EPIC and LEGENDARY, and because of this careful parsing of a story that -- despite what we've been told about how groundbreaking it is -- feels completely and utterly familiar, there is absolutely nothing new or surprising or interesting throughout.

Yes, this is a very Hollywood production, no matter what the credits list reads. It feels like the homogenised version of Australia, where a romantic, adventurous feeling has been grafted onto whatever they found in the outback. And if you don't believe me, take a look at the opening credits crawl. "...a land of adventure and romance..." or something like that. They go right out there and say it, as if you couldn't figure it out yourself.

I'll say this for it: it's a perfect film to see if you want to feel great about being white. The script seems very focused on alleviating colonial guilt; Hugh Jackman's Drover -- no, he never gets a real name... how epic is that? -- is an outcast in Darwin because he associates with Aboriginals. This, in itself, isn't unbelievable, even for the 1940s, but what could have been an interesting character trait is presented in a far-too-glossy manner. Jackman beats up people who talk ill about his friends, and not once do you see an Aboriginal character stand up for themselves. They're not unrepresented, either. But every fight on behalf of Being Treated Equally is fought by Jackman as the Aboriginals stand passively to the side, waiting for permission from Jackman to react. Likewise, Jackman's character was once married to an Aboriginal girl, but that was in past -- within the film's narrative, he falls for a character so white, they actually had to fly her in from England. It's very self-congratulatory stuff, and should help the white middle class feel better about itself when it exits the cinema. (And if you think I'm being unfair about it, watch how the film turns Aboriginal culture into supernatural magic. The condescension in this film is unavoidable.)

This is Baz Luhrmann's worst film, and should play very well internationally. Some posit that Australian films so often fail because of the government funding mandate that says they should focus on some aspect of Australian culture. AUSTRALIA sands down Australian culture to something that closely resembles the Hollywood epics that we're already familiar with. But hey, if it's a fantasy adventure you're after, then I'll review it from that perspective as well: it still sucks.

The film is over two and a half hours long, and boy do you feel it. It's not just that it's poorly paced, you could take ninety minutes out of it and not miss anything. And not ninety minutes of scenes throughout the film, I mean the last ninety minutes. There is a definite end point that occurs in the dead centre of the film, and for the next forty-five minutes you're left wondering why it's still going.

This is a comically terrible movie that can only be redeemed by one thing: if it causes Brandon Walters to go off and get an acting career, then this disaster may almost have been worth it.

Peace out,


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