In praise of Australia, the Movie (and Australia)
It’s not very often that an outstandingly good and enjoyable movie gets so many lousy reviews, both public and private, and so many expressions of delight and admiration too. A friend of long standing and impeccable taste wrote in a recent e-mail, for example, about Australia:
We saw ‘Australia’ in Athens but I’m afraid I can’t share your enthusiasm. It had some good moments — e.g. the cattle stampede — but overall we thought it was curiously amateurish — ultra-corny plot, stilted dialogue and surprisingly inept direction; we were disappointed.
By contrast J, who has bionic antennae for the bogus or sub-standard, wrote the other day:
Yesterday we went to see Australia, which we both enjoyed enormously notwithstanding stupid articles by the likes of Germaine Greer. It is an epic film of the ’40s, 50’s Hollywood variety with Australia’s extraordinary inland scenery providing fair competition for Monument Valley, cattle drives to equal those in any Western, the bombing of Darwin resulting in Gone With The Wind Atlanta scenes and a sentimental story with a happy ending. This isn’t a spoiler: you can tell from the whole spirit of the film that it has to have a happy ending. There were just one or two moments when Nicole Kidman produced a shrill giggle as from her Chanel Number 5 advertisement, ‘I love to Daaaance’ (also directed, like Australia, by Baz Luhrmann). But most of the time she was lovely and not at all like the Botoxed character portrayed by some of the critics. Hugh Jackman is also lovely. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and the swelling chords of Nimrod, bring a tear to the eye. Baz Luhrmann is true to his generation of Australians in a desperate effort to put Aboriginal culture, problems and solutions in the forefront of any film about Australia. It certainly makes a contrast to the treatment of indigenous peoples in most of the great Hollywood westerns, made of course in a different era. Some might think that Lurhmann defeats his purpose by too much repetition of the old man standing on one leg, a bit of a caricature, but you can’t fault him for trying. At least, unless you’re Germaine Greer, you can’t.
There’s a much more perceptive review or article than Professor Greer’s here, which differs from Germaine Greer’s in spotting that Australia is not a documentary, nor a history, nor a political polemic, nor a naturalistic romantic drama, although it combines elements of all these. As Luhrmann himself says, it’s a cinematic smorgasbord, with a heavy emphasis on the cinematic: the film has enchanting echoes of immediately pre-and post-war Hollywood epics, including most obviously Gone with the Wind and numerous Westerns; of magic, fable and fantasy, drawing explicitly on The Wizard of Oz; and illuminated by familiar Luhrmann directorial signatures, most obvious in Moulin Rouge! – a film which incidentally I disliked, but whose highly individualistic style comes off magnificently, I think, in Australia. As the New York Times review put it, –
Baz Luhrmann’s continent-size epic, “Australia,” isn’t the greatest story ever — it’s several dozen of the greatest stories ever told, “The African Queen,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” included. A pastiche of genres and references wrapped up — though, more often than not, whipped up — into one demented and generally diverting horse-galloping, cattle-stampeding, camera-swooping, music-swelling, mood-altering widescreen package, this creation story about modern Australia is a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion.
Roger Ebert’s finely balanced review in the Chicago Sun-Times expressed all the right and necessary reservations, but concluded:
“[Gone With The Wind],” for all its faults and racial stereotyping, at least represented a world its makers believed in. “Australia” envisions a world intended largely as fable, and that robs it of some power. Still, what a gorgeous film, what strong performances, what exhilarating images and — yes, what sweeping romantic melodrama. The kind of movie that is a movie, with all that the word promises and implies.
J and I lived and worked for altogether seven years between 1973 and 1994 in Australia, a big fascinating country with a big-hearted, larger-than-life population that deserves to be celebrated by a really big film like Baz Luhrmann’s. Admittedly I would gladly watch a three-hour movie consisting exclusively of the beautiful Nicole Kidman reading extracts from the Sydney telephone directory; but it’s not only, or mainly, a devotion to that outstanding actress that impels me to urge you to go and see Australia and to judge it for yourself. Just don’t judge it as something it was never meant to be. Go and see Australia, too, with the same proviso.
Brian, it sounds a great film. I probably won’t be seeing it, but only because the sound in the modern multiplex cinema is simultaneously too loud and subtly distorted so that I lose half the dialogue even when it’s not drowned by mood-music.
My only comment, therefore, is my surprise at the suggestion in some quarters that the film was made “to put Australia on the map”. I had thought that Australia had long been well and truly on the map, for reasons ranging from the hospitality of its citizens to the fighting qualities of its troops, and from the excellence of its wines and the drama of its scenery to the abilities of its artists, writers, scientists, and scholars.
See also Clive James’s remarks at
I think I shall have to visit my niece in Brisbane and her family!
Brian writes: I couldn’t agree more strongly about the excellence of Australia and Australians in virtually every field of human endeavour. I was in Canberra when Cyclone Tracy flattened Darwin (much more effectively than the Japanese bombers had managed to do) from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, 1974. I flew up there a few days later to help with the evacuation of the staff of a small British wireless relay station just outside Darwin, and was flabbergasted by the extent of the damage: it looked like Hiroshima immediately after the bomb. According to Wikipedia, “Tracy killed 71 people, caused $837 million in damage (1974 AUD) and destroyed more than 70 percent of Darwin’s buildings, including 80 percent of houses. Tracy left homeless more than 20,000 out of the 49,000 inhabitants of the city prior to landfall and required the evacuation of over 30,000 people.” Those 30,000 evacuees — 35,362 according to official Australian records — were fed and sheltered until the vast fleet of aircraft and vehicles could be assembled, comprising virtually all the passenger aircraft in the country, and then flown or driven out and re-housed by “the kindness of strangers” — all volunteers — in a matter of barely more than a week. It was done with no panic and no fuss: an extraordinary achievement. 15,950 people were evacuated in civilian aircraft and 9,678 in military aircraft, the remaining 9,734 by road. If you have got to experience a disaster, make sure you’ve got some Australians with you. If not, you can easily make do with Baz Luhrmann and Nicole Kidman. (And Clive James, of course.)
As an Australian friend from those 70s days when you and J were in Australia — and in the 90s too — I just love your enthusiasm for all the best of Australia and Australians. We here are desperately clinging to the memories of what we in Australia were becoming, and we’re hoping that the stulted development is being revivified.
It’s such a pity that it takes ‘Australia’ to get us on to the world screen when there are Australian productions, like 3 Dollars, Look Both Ways…. – and there are others but I can’t remember them now – which are quirky, daring, modern in situation and character – which just don’t get the box office promotion which ‘Australia’ did.
Never mind. Australia is indeed a great country, and on the strength of your recommendation, despite our misgivings, John and I will go and see ‘Australia’.
We shall certainly go to see Australia after reading your account, and look forward to it.
Brian writes: Good! So long as you know that you’re in for a feast of fable, magic and a celebration of old Hollywood movie kitsch, and not a documentary!
I saw Australia in Australia – that has to give me a few brownie points (er…cubbie points) for a start! The best review of the film in my view was by Cosmo Landesman (and I dont always agree with him). I spent the first hour wondering quite what I was doing in the cinema and just hoping that it would improve and yes it did…by the end I was so absorbed that I was forced to admit on Facebook that I blubbed and blubbed….as Cosmo says, it will divide and has divided but I challenge those who are prepared to stay the distance and have a morsel of emotion within them not to do as I did and be prepared to get their handkerchief wet. It was a very enjoyable experience wiith some great scenery and pretty good acting. But people have to remember that the director is a very stylisitc director with a tendency to go over the top, so dont expect anything too naturalistic…Ken Loach it is NOT!