About fifty years ago, Twentieth Century-Fox came to the Australian outback to make a film called Kangaroo – a lavish epic in the Western tradition, and the first movie to be shot in Technicolour in Australia. It was an epic tale of an English adventurer, an evil plan to take control of a drought-stricken cattle ranch, a beautiful woman, Aboriginal corroborees, and the mustering of cattle. Despite the huge budget and the stars involved (Maureen O’Hara flew in from Hollywood to take top billing) the film was neither a box office nor a critical success.
History has a habit of repeating itself. Twentieth Century-Fox is the studio behind Baz Luhrmann’s grandly titled Australia, and it tells the tale of the wife of an English adventurer, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who comes to a drought stricken cattle ranch in the Northern Territory only to discover a plot to take control of the property by cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his evil crony Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). Carney has a monopoly on the provision of beef to the military and will do anything to get his hands on the property. Rather than sell out, Sarah decides to enlist the help of local stockman Drover (Hugh Jackman) to drive her cattle to Darwin, at the same time taking under her wing the young half-caste Nullah (Brandon Walters) who has grown up on her land. Nullah acts as the narrator of the story and is visited regularly by his grandfather, an Aboriginal magic man named King George (David Gulpilil), who watches over proceedings with a spiritual eye.
It is a huge film – in scale, scope, look and feel, and of course budget. It is also a huge disappointment, labouring under the weight of its own overly mannered style, and its ambition to somehow embody the spirit of a nation, the style of classic movie making, and the historical politics of race relations. At nearly three hours in length, the film required either a galloping storyline or the exploration of characters in real depth. We get neither – and the film’s simple linear plotting is devoid of suspense, telegraphing all its dramatic moments so clearly that we are simply waiting for the inevitable. And wait we must, as the cattle mustering Western storyline comes to a close, and the bombing of Darwin storyline takes over. We wait often, too, as moments of drama unfold theatrically in slow motion, accompanied by swelling music and expositional voice-over. It is laboured cinematic excess.
The people of the film – with the stunning exception of Nullah – are caricatures rather than characters, and offer us little emotional connection. Luhrmann’s deliberate directorial decision to take this melodramatic approach means the performances are exaggerated , Kidman thoroughly entertaining as the comic English lady abroad, but less convincing as she falls for Jackman’s rough but noble outcast stockman. The real charm and warmth in the film comes almost exclusively from the performance of the young Brandon Walters, whose natural ease serves to highlight the cartoon nature of those around him.
The film looks stunning, Mandy Walker’s cinematography of the outback a real highlight (and far superior to the CGI-enhanced sequences) but I suspect that, like Kangaroo in 1952, this wont be enough to thrill audiences or woo critics.