Reviewed by: James Benefield

"Australia undercuts its cinematic insecurities with heart, soul and imagination."

Many people have spotted similarities between Baz Lurhman’s new movie and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour. Although, on the whole, they’re pretty glib comparisons, elements shared between the two do provide an interesting introduction to looking at, and understanding, Baz’s latest project. Both feature glossy revisionist histories (I struggle to use the word ‘interpretations’) of major events in and around World War Two, interspersed with fictional characters, who all brandish cornflour white teeth and expensively exfoliated skin.

At their best, both fail to grasp the role of their non-Westernised ‘other’ characters; at their worst each is condescending and mildly xenophobic of them. The films are also kind of neo-epics; large scale imaginings of war and conflict akin to epic flicks of the 1930s and 40s, suffused with 21st century technique and attitudes.

Copy picture

The film focuses on Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and her coming to terms with an inheritance; she arrives in Australia to find she's lost her husband, and gained his cattle estate. She befriends a freelance cattle rancher, Drover (Hugh Jackman) to help the upkeep of the estate, but they soon discover something is awry. A rival businessman is trying to at best take over, at worst steal, the ranch and its cattle. Hugh and Nicole decide to up sticks to Darwin to try to get their cattle first on the boat, in order to save their hides. On the trek, Lady Ashley grows closer to an aborigine boy left at the ranch, and, also, closer to Drover.

Aside from the plot’s main thrust, the major difference between Pearl Harbour and Australia is that Australia is not shit. Luhrman is a filmmaker who has a history of throwing his entire box of tricks at the audience, regardless of whether or not these are appropriate. His work has an internal logic and spirit like nobody else’s. He wants you to react to his world, engage with it, be seduced by everything he shows you. He’s the celluloid equivalent of an infatuated art student (he probably was one), who sends his object of desire a heady selection of mix tapes, roses (both the flower and the confectionary kind) and self-penned poetry, whilst maintaining his distance as he doesn’t quite yet have the emotional maturity, and sense, to take that next step.

Pearl Harbour was pompous, overlong, arrogant and in love with its own meticulously conceived set pieces of destruction. Australia is possibly, and probably, guilty of some, if not all, of these things. However, it undercuts its cinematic insecurities with heart, soul and imagination. Its irritating use of Somewhere Over The Rainbow is trite, but sweet. Its attempt to engage with the aboriginal cultures of Australia is highly patronising, not to mention exhausting in its persistence, but it’s noble and sincere in its intention. The melding of the off-kilter whimsy of Moulin Rouge! and the grandiosity of Gone With The Wind is original, although ultimately jarring.

Sure, Australia is terrible. But it’s never boring. Underneath all the bombast, the worthy but misguided flirtations with aboriginal culture and the cloying saccharine, it’s bold, gutsy movie making from a director who has heart, good intentions and, above all, something new to show his audience. Rumours have it that if you say Baz Lurhman’s name three times in front of the bathroom mirror, he will come and cut through certain members of the Hollywood A-list from gut to gullet. Or perhaps that was a dream I had.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2009
Share this with others on...
Australia packshot
Sprawling epic sees English toff and drover bond over cattle and kids.
Amazon link

Read more Australia reviews:

Chris **

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Brandon Walters, Bruce Spence, Jack Thompson, Bill Hunter, Ben Mendelsohn, John Jarratt, Jacek Koman

Year: 2008

Runtime: 165 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, Australia, US


Australia 2009

Search database: