Tue November 25, 2008
By John DeSando, WCBE's
"In a way Australia is like Catholicism. The company is sometimes questionable and the landscape is grotesque. But you always come back." Thomas Keneally
It's a shame old-fashioned epics are out of fashion because Baz Luhrmann's Australia is one of the best ever, a down under Gone with the Wind and Giant. The identification with a time and place is effective as the film highlights the grandeur of an untamable land and the despair of World War II. The romance of history and adventure, so much a part of the Australian character, is present in every frame.
In 1939 Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) voyages from London to meet her husband and sell their large ranch in northern Australia. His death and the competition with the largest land owner, King Carney (Bryan Brown), over supplying cattle for the Australian Army's war effort propel the plot into the epic struggle of driving 2000 head of cattle to Darwin. But more than that very American Western cinematic motif, right to the chase to stop the cattle from being driven over a cliff, is the struggle to save the Aborigines from cultural extinction.
Drover (Hugh Jackman) is the embodiment of the competent and romantic Aussie, who also is driven to save the Aborigines symbolized in the form of young Nullah (Brandon Walters). Nullah frames the film's story without sentimentality but with the wisdom of one who has learned mightily from his experiences. (The idea of having one's "story" is as aboriginal as an American having an automobile.) Luhrmann neatly dovetails the parallel stories of family and survival through Sarah and Nullah.
The real prize for this film must go to the cinematography with its full-screen sweep and robust movement. As he did in Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann creates visuals that draw the audience in and thrill them with innovation and vitality.
Comparisons will be made with GWTW, unfairly because the latter is the original and grandest of the screen epics. Australia lacks the ample characters (although it is great to see a seedy Jack Thompson again) and the awful grandeur of the Civil War (WWII does not play that powerful role in Australia), but it has its style and humor (the opening Coen Bros. Oh-Brother-style sequence is exciting and funny).
Australia is a majestic holiday feast best seen on the biggest screen you can find.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's It's Movie Time and Cinema Classics shows, which can be heard streaming at http://publicbroadcasting.net/wcbe/ppr/index.shtml Friday at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime at http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wcbe/arts.artsmain Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com