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Australia – unlike the movie, even the aborginal shaman has one leg to stand on

frankly my dear - don't give a damn

frankly my dear - don't give a damn

Australia – Baz Luhrman

A Christmas party game: invent the worst film titles you can imagine that would put you off going to see a film at all. Some suggestions: Hilarious, Genius, The Movie, Driver, Power and Glory. The only thing that could have made Pearl Harbour a worse film would have been to have called it Pearl. There are plenty of dumb, quirky titles but the one word, portentous titles irritate most I think. Even David O. Selznik didn’t call Gone With The Wind – America. Though he might well have wished Margaret Mitchell had. The other infallible tell for a duff movie is when a character has a function instead of a name – here Hugh Jackman’s ‘Drover’. (Remember Ryan O’Neal’s ‘The Driver’?) Nuff said*.

Even a documentary series called Australia would sound ambitious: calling a one-off movie, even one a tad under 3 hours (over)long, after a whole country, just gets the hubris detectors twitching. I like Baz Luhrman’s films – I’m a big fan – and if the grandiose get-up-your-nose title of his latest was his only avoidable mistake I would forget it like a shot. But sadly, although there are some breathtaking visual moments that hint at the innovative, haunting film this might have been, it eventually sprawls across genres, styles and visual film references that added style to Romeo and Juliet and flair to Moulin Rouge but here simply make everything look phoney – performances, characters and story.

Casting killed the movie before a frame was shot. I still believe there is a Director out there able to stop Nicole Kidman over-acting so bloody hard she is beginning to caricature herself – Baz is just the last in a long line to fail. But she should never forgive him for letting this mannered, twitchy, painful performance reach the screen. Almost everyone in the this film is a stereotype, no one more so than Kidman’s Lady Sarah Ashley. Lazily settling for a toffee-nosed, plummy, right-up-herself caricature of an English aristo, Luhrman like many before him settles for silly-arse stereotypes that lets the overweening arrogance and implacable inhumanity of many imperialist Englishmen and women escape unscathed. We can’t really blame Hugh Jackman for ‘Drover’ – after all how do you act a function instead of a character? However his limited animation seems more engaged chasing cattle than wooing Ms Kidman; but he rides well (a horse) and bares burnished beefcake breasts beautifully by the Billabong in the cheesiest moment in a frequently cheesy movie.

Given the way every white Australian in Luhrman’s movie speaks it is a disturbing, subversive thought that Australians don’t and we shouldn’t, laugh at Fosters adverts because they aren’t meant to be self-mocking and ironic.

The heart of this story, its only rationale worth respect, and the sole focus of credible acting is the aboriginal story line. A precocious, immensely likeable performance from Brandon Walters a thirteen-year-old aboriginal boy who plays Nullah the half-caste (‘creamy’) boy first befriended and then adopted by Lady Ashley, sustains one’s attention and hope when Nicole and Hugh are inducing laughter or tedium. Even here although Luhrman clearly has a good racially revisionist liberal heart, directorially he flaunts it on his sleeve as if he can’t trust us to find it. The spiritual and dramatic spine of this movie though is provided by David Gulpilil’s shamanistic King George – grandfather to Nullah. In perhaps the only performance in a genuinely aboriginal spirit, King George’s impact on the story has nothing to do with his personality, impossible anyway to divine under thick coats of body and face paint. Lurhman is never better visually than in his images of Nullah and King George silhouetted against the stark, florid colours of the fiery Australian terrain and sunsets. However, like most white people he conflates aboriginal spirituality with causally effective magical powers.

Baz Luhrman is a multi-talented film-maker. What Australia suggests is that the one talent he, and therefore Australia lacks – is good writing. Even if his white actors were up to something better, the screenplay here is hackneyed and trite – its one passable if Delphic line “pride is not power” – being intoned self-importantly three times in 30 minutes.

Lady Sarah Ashley’s husband is making their fortune raising cattle in pre-WWII Australia. Suspecting her husband has maritally ‘gone native’ while away, Sarah sets off just before the outbreak of war to jolly well put an end to his dalliances, sell the ranch and drag him back to England.

Luhrman has lots of pommie-bashing fun and games clashing Lady S’s English sensibilities with a spade’s-a-f**cking-shovel bluntness of the guys in the land of Oz. (I waited breath bated for the Dunny jokes – thank you at least for that one small mercy Baz). On arrival she finds her husband has been killed with a spear, ostensibly thrown by King George. Unwittingly witnessing the aristocrat’s demise Nullah knows the truth.

In a middle section that plays like any routine US Western ‘oater’ of the 50’s and 60’s, TV or movie, Kidman, enlisting the aid of Drover sets out to thwart the Cattle baron monopoly of King Carney (Bryan Brown) (who of course has an evil ranch foreman ‘Bull’ – Ray Barrett), by driving their herd to Darwin to break Carney’s monopolistic over-charging of the British Army desperate to feed their troops.

Drover, “nobody hires me, nobody fires me” like every good scout in US Westerns, of course understands the aboriginal people better than his own ethnic white culture, and via the endearing link with the newly-orphaned Nullah, he and Sarah run the ranch in the wet season and then he droves off into the sunset for a month at a time when it’s dry.

Nullah’s time with Sarah is threatened by the practice of the then Australian government of forcibly removing aboriginal children from their culture and ‘educating’ the ‘black’ out of them so they could become civilised and be servants to whites. This emulated the same practice in Canada and the US of adopting Indian children out of their tribe: “kill the Indian – save the man.” As in North America this practice was ‘for their own good’ and driven by so-called Christian charity. Some laughably phoney CGI-generated action events like a herd stampeded by Carney’s men toward the edge of a cliff, break up the tedium of a story-line repeated a thousand times in movie and TV Westerns. Only the terrain is different and the badly treated aboriginals here are black instead of red.

Eventually Luhrman lets his by-numbers storyline sprawl into a superfluous Act III with a post-Pearl Harbour attack by the Japanese on Darwin. This concerted CGI assault has all the credibility of Michael Bay’s execrable Pearl Harbour (2001) and after a bit of routine derring-do by Jackman and a suitably altruistic aboriginal sacrifice**, dear old Baz cranks up a soaring strings, Elgar’s Nimrod-driven crescendo of emotion which grabs your heart with all the subtlety and finesse of a surgeon cracking open your chest, reaching in and massaging it by hand.

Sorry Baz but this is a mess: almost every character is a stereotype, and if that’s the point – I don’t get it. Unlike the story, even King George has one leg to stand on. Nothing can entirely destroy the stark, florid unsettling beauty of Australia – the country, not the film title. Despite Luhrman’s well-intentioned but ultimately patronising use of the Aborginal people and culture, thanks largely to a haunting Gulpilil and an engaging young Brandon Walters, these indigenous Australians still retain a kind of dignity neither white culture nor in any real sense, Luhrman himself, gives them. Such a pity. Such a waste. But ’twas ever thus.

* So help me dear reader, I had completed this before I discovered that Hugh Jackman’s current film in production is called Drive. That’s one to watch out for then!

** This makes me think of the schoolboy Lone Ranger joke:

Why did the Lone Ranger fall out with Tonto? He found out that ‘Kimosabe’ meant dick-head.

I don’t mean to be flippant about a genuinely serious issue but this trite, predictable, patronising ‘good act’ aboriginal sacrifice has a suppressed premise – there isn’t that a surprise!

When will we realise that respect for other cultures, especially aboriginal is shown by taking the trouble to try to understand them – not patronisingly turning them into sentimentalised forms of our own culture?

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