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In defence of Australia
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In defence of Australia

December 4 2008

CRIKEY! – as The Drover and Lady Sarah Ashley say – it’s finally here. After something like two years’ herding cats and running with squirrels – figuratively speaking – Baz Luhrmann and his long-suffering and heroic crew have finally managed to drove (drive? druv?) the fantastical epic romance Australia into multiplexes around the world.

Was it worth the wait? Does it live up to the hype? Absolutely: YES!. Pay no attention to he sniping, carping and half-hearted reviews; ignore sniffy critics, the sneering commentariat, box office figures and anything or anyone that might try to put you off. Australia is the most joyous, funny, spectacular, heartwarming, stirring and crazy-wonderful movie since probably ever.

Unfortunately, however, that misanthropic sub-sect which loves to chop at Tall Poppies just can’t help it: its motley members sniff for blood where there is none, hope for blood when they can’t find it; search feverishly for blood then, when it’s finally clear that it isn’t present, they’ll slash and scratch away until blood is eventually drawn. Then the frenzy of negativity begins. This is what seems to be happening with Baz Luhrmann’s new movie. And it stinks.

At a media conference when the film first opened he said he didn’t expect everyone to like it (probably meaning critics). But he said, “It is between the film and the audience.” And it really is – particularly for an Australian audience. Ironically, at a time when the Australian film industry is under attack for making depressing little films that nobody wants to see (at home or overseas) Luhrmann has made the most expensive and expansive Australian movie ever. And it is nothing short of a love letter to the country itself: it could bring tears to the eyes of a stone statue.

Actually it’s a bundle of love letters tenderly tied with a ribbon stained with the dust of the outback.

There is the classic love story between The Drover and Lady Sarah. And pay no attention to the lemon-suckers who’ve sneered at the alleged non-chemistry between Our Hugh and Our Nic – it’s so much bulldust. On screen they are delicious together, from hostile misunderstandings and insults, through to the heart-stopping real deal and beyond.

Through them Luhrmann and his writers have devised a love letter to spiky, tempestuous movie romances of the past: Hepburn and Tracy (Pat and Mike), Wayne and O’Hara (Rio Grande), Donahue and Pleshette (A Distant Trumpet), Gable and Leigh (Gone With the Wind), Redford and Streep (Out of Africa) and even Hudson and Day (Pillow Talk).

Then there’s the way it looks. Luhrmann, through wife and long-time collaborator production designer Catherine Martin, has painted a love letter to the sumptuous paeans to Nature found in the landscapes of How The West Was Won, Lawrence of Arabia, Out of Africa and the like. Not a spectacular sunset nor heart-stopping vista escaped the cameras of the Australia team and the result is breathtaking.

There are also knowing nods to the hyper-realism of the pre-digital era when mattes, models and scenic artists created townscapes, stampedes and other geographic impossibilities (How the West Was Won again) which were spectacular and somewhere way beyond “real”. This stylish effect begins with the aerial view of the Ashley estate in England’s green and bucolic land, flits swiftly – via Pathe-esque map and toy plane – to Darwin, circa 1938, with sturdy tramp steamers at the wharves; and as quickly again to the dust- and drought-riven expanses of Faraway Downs.

Our introduction to the ravishing splendour of the Northern Territory terrain is “seen” through the amazed eyes of a foreigner – Lady Sarah Ashley. Nicole Kidman is terrific in the role. She is so outlandish in her elegant safari-wear and aristocratic hauteur as to be both hilarious and touching. Then, as her eyes are gradually opened to the unimagined wonders in which she finds herself, the outer trappings of Euro-sophistication begin to slip and a three-dimensional human being gradually emerges. Lady Sarah starts out petulant, silly and snooty yet ends up plucky, dignified and humble. Hers is the movie’s greatest journey – the 1500 head of beef cattle notwithstanding.

As with every unlikely aspect of the script (which is excellent on plot and, frankly, not so hot on dialogue) the cattle aren’t simply there to be picturesque and drovable. War is looming and, in Darwin, a starchy British army officer (Ben Mendelssohn with trimmed moustache and a ramrod spine) is buying beef to be corned and canned for the troops. Lord Vestey made a considerable fortune out of doing just that and he is represented in Australia by King Carney (yes, really!) played with his customary steely-eyed grit by Bryan Brown.

Carney wants to get his nasty paws on Faraway Downs to give him a monopoly on the land and the beef business. So sure is he that the silly little chit from England will be only too pleased to get rid of the snorting, smelly creatures, the contract is ready for her signature before the flying boat has even landed. He’s not far wrong. The story goes that Lady Sarah’s husband is spending a suspicious amount of time “dine under” allegedly in pursuit of profits from the sale of cattle. Lady Sarah thinks another kind of cow is occupying his time, which is why she packed her Prada ports to go check him out. Fortunately for the movie, Lord Ashley is murdered in the opening minutes thus enabling the speedy introduction of the two heroes who will play pivotal roles in her life: the Drover (Jackman) and Nullah (Brandon Walters) a half white-half Aboriginal boy.

Although the plot is simple and classic: a romance, a quest, love found, lost and regained, hissable villains and the most heart-stopping leading man since Cary Grant, Australia also offers more than Pow! Bam! comic cuts. It opens with the briefest of references to the Stolen Generation and that becomes a strong element of the film’s subtext. Nullah’s mother (Ursula Yovich) and grandmother (Lillian Crombie) work as domestics at Faraway Downs, but when it comes to the crunch and the cattle need moving, both women immediately take on the task of cattle drovers – as so many Aboriginal women did at that time. When the Director’s Cut makes it to DVD it will be intriguing to see how much of their story had to be left on the cutting room floor. Personally, I’d favour a four-hour version, with a tucker break, just to follow up on stories such as these.

In defence of Australia

As well as Crombie and Yovich, the movie also features David Gulpilil as Nullah’s iconic grandfather, David Wenham as one of the nastiest characters ever to wear a pair of creepy crocodile hide boots and a cavalcade of Australia’s finest actors in cameo and support roles. In particular Kerry Walker and Sandy Gore, who look down their noses and sneer a lot in their roles as the creme de la creme of haute Darwin; David Ngoombujarra as the Drover’s dignified offsider; Jacek Koman as the Darwin pub landlord who stands in for every matter-of-fact boong-hater that ever spat bile. Matthew Whittet makes a telling contribution as a feverishly petrified young vicar and there’s a wildly absurd turn as a drunken accountant by Jack Thompson that owes a lot to Rooster Cogburn and Chips Rafferty (if either gent had done a lot of acid, that is).

In other words, there is a lot of comic cuts and the Saturday morning flicks in Australia and the movie references just keep coming. If you wonder whether the cattle drove is familiar (taking them to Darwin) you may be thinking of The Overlanders (which took the cattle from Darwin!) And then there’s The Wizard of Oz.

To hang so many of Nullah and Lady Sarah’s dreams and aspirations off a clip of the young Judy Garland plaintively singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” turns out to be glorious conceit. There are sequences that should break your heart, unless it’s irretrievably pickled in cynicism. A blacked-up Nullah sits in the rafters of the Pearl outdoor cinema and watches wide-eyed as Garland sings her own dreaming song of her own rainbow serpent (which is how he sees it). Later a chronically emotionally-crippled Lady Sarah tries to comfort him with a story – she doesn’t do mothering awfully well, she’s told the Drover – and awkwardly begins to relate the tale of The Wizard of Oz after spotting an ad for the movie in the Darwin paper.

The Wizard of Oz laces its way through Australia in an enchanting way as Nullah makes of it what he will. And of course, in the end, as the Drover says: “there’s no place like home.” This is true of the movie as a whole: the sum of its parts is so much greater than the carping would have you believe. It does remind you, forcefully, that there’s no place like it: Australia is the real deal.

Meanwhile, however, Australia has been criticised for being “historically inaccurate”. Kate Grenville would know about that kind of attack. Like her, Luhrmann has used historical events as a backdrop and launch pad for a work of fiction. There’s a long tradition of that in storytelling, just ask Jesus.

It has also been criticised for depicting two white people (Drover and Lady Sarah) as the chief protagonists and surrogate parents for Nullah when it would be much more PC and acceptable – apparently – to have Aboriginal leads and to find something else to do with Nullah, preferably not being cuddled by a white woman. Well indeed, but it would be a different story and this one is this story. And the story is about life in Darwin in the 1930s, not Double Bay, 2008.

The film’s makers have also been criticised for “blacking up” Ursula Yovich, as Nullah’s mother, rather than leaving her honey-colouring as nature made it. In the context of the story, Yovich is an Aboriginal woman whose forced sexual relations with a white man result in Nullah – the “creamy” or “half-caste” boy. Given that Yovich’s own parentage is 50/50 European and Aboriginal and her skin colour suggests it, and in the film the ebony-hued Lillian Crombie plays her mother, the colouring of Yovich’s skin is of some significance. The audience needs to be clear that it is Nullah who is the “creamy”, not her: otherwise it would have been she who lived in fear of being shipped off to the mission, rather than her son. Is the outcome racist? Is it inappropriate? In the film’s various story lines that of the two Aboriginal women and the boy is one of the strongest and politically pointed. Insulting? I don’t think so. But has anyone asked Yovich and Crombie what they think?

And let's not forget Nicole Kidman. In her role as Lady Sarah Ashley Kidman has been given a vicious pasting by some sourpuss in the UK and it’s truly awful in its nastiness. It’s as if the writer had sucked up equal doses of patriarchal attitudes, bile and misogyny and then spewed out the resulting mess in an unbelievably cruel toxic spray. The clue as to why could be that the writer – and other savage email respondents – is English. And Kidman’s turn as Lady Hoity-Toity is wickedly accurate and funny.

Unlike Katharine Hepburn, who was once described by Dorothy Parker as running the gamut of emotions from A to B, Kidman really does get down and dirty with the emotional stuff, particularly as it relates to Nullah. The relationship between the two is a lovely thing to behold and when she loses him in the midst of bombed and smoking Darwin, you’d have to be a hard-hearted Hannah not to choke up. In Australia Kidman gives one of the richly nuanced performance trajectories that she can do but is rarely given.

One of the more typical Tall Poppy snipes at the film was a moan about The Drover’s allegedly inauthentic use of a toothbrush. Apparently the snippy viewer would have preferred him to have ghastly rotten teeth or scrub away with wood ash on a rag. Thing is, the first recognisable toothbrush was invented in 1780 and Mr Dupont was mass-producing nylon tufted toothbrushes (like the one Hugh uses on his pearlies) in 1938. Admittedly it would have made The Drover a bit avant garde, but if you had a smile like Hugh Jackman’s, wouldn’t you?

At the press conference mentioned earlier, Nicole Kidman said: “This is a celebration for me and hopefully for this country. It’s not meant to be the second coming, but it is meant to be – let’s have fun and enjoy it.” It’s an excellent basis for viewing Australia: go with an open heart and open mind and expect to be entertained as much as the audiences of 1938 expected to be entertained when they went to the movies. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts, flawed or not, and it’s a cinematic achievement of glorious proportions. Thanks Baz, thanks everyone.

 

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