Monday, December 8, 2008

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Australia"

First in an occasional series. Note: "highly-anticipated" in this context means "movies that I've been anticipating for a long time," not "I believe that you, the reader of my blog, have been highly anticipating my thoughts on this movie."

Movie title: Australia

Reasons for anticipation: Moulin Rouge was my favorite movie of 2001, the movie I was obsessed with in high school, the first DVD I owned, etc. Seven and a half years (that's a third of my life!) is a long time to wait for Baz Luhrmann's follow-up!

Actors in major roles: Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, uptight English aristo left on her own in Australia
Hugh Jackman as the Drover, Outback cowboy, so rugged that he doesn't need to have a real name
Brandon Walters as Nullah, a little half-white half-Aborigine boy, persecuted by the authorities because of this

The verdict: Kind of awesome and kind of a mess

Elaboration: Rarely have I enjoyed so many moments of a movie while acknowledging that it doesn't work as a whole. There are patches of really astounding filmmaking in Australia, times when I gleefully thought "This is the Greatest Thing Ever!" (OK, I exaggerate: the Greatest Thing Ever [not to be confused with The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn] is still the "Roxanne Tango" from Moulin Rouge.) It helps that I have a high tolerance for stylization, corny jokes, old-fashioned movie moments, and the rest of Luhrmann's bag of tricks. All the same, he's trying to juggle too many disparate elements, and the genre pastiche doesn't hold together.

I loved Luhrmann's chutzpah in blatantly copying the shot that plays during the intermission of Gone with the Wind--you know, with the red sunset and the big tree on the left side of the frame--for the opening shot of Australia. Later in the movie there is a scene that is basically a gender-reversed version of the scene where Rhett dances at the ball with Scarlett even though she is a social pariah. (And Kidman wears another great red dress. And she and Jackman dance to "Begin the Beguine." Be still my heart!) Australia begins in 1939, so its allusions to Gone with the Wind and to The Wizard of Oz pay tribute to the two most famous movies of an incredibly rich film year, and I found this delightful.

(Also, how did I never before notice that in one of those movies, Scarlett's old way of life is "gone with the wind," and in the other, Dorothy gets carried off by a literal wind?)

Unsurprisingly, Australia is a great-looking movie. So was Moulin Rouge, but that one moves so fast that you don't necessarily notice the beauty of individual shots and compositions, as you do in Australia. There are obvious showpieces, like the initial Gone with the Wind homage, or the soaring landscape shots, or Hugh Jackman's entrance clean-shaven in a white dinner jacket (audible gasps in the theater). But smaller moments also show great attention to aesthetics, e.g. a shot where Kidman lays her milky-pale hand on Jackman's chest, then he grasps it with his tanned weatherbeaten hand, then Walters runs in and puts his caramel-skinned hand atop theirs. Beautiful! And it's fun to see Luhrmann make a movie that takes place almost entirely out-of-doors, after the studio-bound Moulin Rouge.

The original New York Times review of Moulin Rouge said "You get the feeling [Kidman] would set herself aflame if Mr. Luhrmann asked her," which is a wonderfully apt description of her performance in that movie, and applies just as well to Australia. She is willing to go along with all of Luhrmann's tonal shifts--first playing Lady Sarah's snooty repression for laughs, then throwing herself into the melodrama of the latter part of the film. (How can a woman who has so little vanity when it comes to her acting have so much vanity when it comes to the smoothness of her forehead?) Meanwhile, what's interesting about Jackman's performance is that even though he's playing a brawling, riding, hyper-masculine hero, he is the one who must allow his beauty to be objectified, deliver an affecting monologue about his past, and cry on cue. Usually those things are the woman's responsibility.

Kidman and Jackman are accomplished actors who know that Australia requires them to play archetypes, not real human beings. Brandon Walters, however, is too young to realize how stylized and schematic the movie is, and that he is supposed to embody the archetypal Cute and Spunky Orphan. Therefore, he plays Nullah with absolute sincerity, and Nullah is the only character here that you believe could have ever existed in the real world, not merely in silver-screen imagination.

So now I'm getting to why Australia is a mess. For one, this clash of acting styles reveals that Luhrmann's love of movie archetypes and over-the-top scenarios conflicts with his desire to treat the discrimination faced by Aboriginal Australians with the seriousness it deserves.

Now, people accuse Moulin Rouge of being a mess too, and even if I disagree with that, Australia is undoubtedly messier. For all its excess, Moulin Rouge is a backstage story based around two simple questions: will the show be a hit, and will the lovers end up together? When those questions are answered, the movie ends. Australia, however, switches between several questions, and introduces new questions more than halfway through, and the characters' motivations have to change in rather arbitrary ways in order to keep up. Plus, we never get a real sense of what Lady Sarah was like back in England, which leaves her under-characterized for the whole movie. What does she want?

So, while Australia tries to juggle too many questions and is thus too long, parts of it also feel rushed, or too short, or under-motivated. For instance, on the cattle drive, the Drover tells Sarah that they'll need to wake up at midnight and sing to the cattle in order to keep them calm. Now, this sounds like a perfect opportunity to develop the love story: at this point, the characters have gotten over their initial dislike but are unwilling to admit their attraction. What would they say to each other, when they're the only people awake under that vast Outback sky? I anticipated a charming scene of Hugh and Nicole singing, flirting awkwardly, and getting mooed at by cattle. But it doesn't exist. And so there's not enough sexual tension built up before they have their first kiss.

There are a few other times in Australia when I thought scenes were "missing"--I won't bore you with specifics, but let's just say that I'll need to see whether the DVD has any deleted scenes, and usually I don't care about that.

There are many parallels, too, between Australia and Out of Africa--a movie that gets a lot of flak these days, I guess for being middlebrow, but it hangs together much better than Australia does. Meryl Streep gives a detailed portrayal of how it would feel to be an aristocrat falling reluctantly in love with a free-spirited adventurer, while the overstuffed script of Australia requires Kidman to do that in shorthand. Though as I said, she's up for anything, it's hard to find a through-line between her scenes.

Australia has a really exciting first half, centered around the set-piece of a cattle drove and stampede, and maybe the movie should've limited itself to the drove and its immediate aftermath. But then it skips forward 3 years to the Japanese attack on Darwin, Australia (glossing over in about 10 minutes what Out of Africa took an hour to do), and everything just becomes too much, excessively resorting to the old children-in-peril trick to manipulate the audience. Still, if Luhrmann had told only the story of the drove, his movie would have been basically a Western--very entertaining and beautifully shot, but probably not ambitious enough for him. He's trying to create a mythic, epic Australia, and for that, nothing less than a switch halfway through to World War II drama will do.

Other observations:
  • Do you know how happy it made me to see that the Narcoleptic Argentinian has a role in this movie too?
  • In America, if you want a PG-13 rating, you can only use the F-word once, so it'd better be good. Titanic got this wrong. Australia gets it right.
  • The credits say that the "Drover's Theme" is by Elton John, but the music that plays whenever Jackman appears is really Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze." At first I thought that this was clever--the music director has orchestrated and permutated this simple melody to fit all kinds of situations, like the Marseillaise in Casablanca--but after a while it just got on my nerves. The movie's not about sheep--it's about cattle!

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