Thursday, April 23, 2009

Australia (20th Century-Fox, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

By far the best thing that happened to me yesterday was the movie Charles and I ended up watching: Australia, the 2008 epic directed and co-written by Baz Luhrmann about his native country in general and in particular how World War II affected the northwest of Australia, both positively (in terms of the dramatic uptick in the market for Aussie beef caused by the British military’s need for provisions) and negatively (the direct military threat caused by Japan, which actually dive-bombed the city of Darwin in northwestern Australia about two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor). Despite being the long-awaited follow-up to Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge! and being a major-budget epic with big stars — including Moulin Rouge! star Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, titled Englishwoman who comes out to Australia upon the murder of her husband, who ran a cattle ranch down there and attracted the enmity of the local cattle baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown); and Hugh Jackman as a character identified only as “The Drover” (i.e., cattle driver), whom Lady Sarah hires to lead her cattle to market and thus attempt to get the money to save the ranch from Carney’s attempts to put her out of business — Australia was a box-office flop, sinking from sight after about a couple of weeks in theatres, winning only one Academy Award nomination and giving rise to the usual doom-saying articles in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere that the era of the adult-oriented epic movie is over and for the rest of our moviegoing days all the major studios are going to churn out are comic-book films and gross-out comedies.

I don’t know what the long-term effect of the commercial failure of Australia is going to be on the movie business, but if there’s any justice in the film world this movie — like The Wizard of Oz, which features prominently in its plot and was also a major financial failure on its initial release — will gain the reputation it deserves. If I stop short of calling Australia a masterpiece, it’s only because too much of it seems made up of other movies instead of actual life — it’s one of those films in which one feels that the references to other films are being hurled in your face by writers (Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan) anxious to show how clever they are and how many films they’ve seen. Basically it’s a two-part film that grafts a remake of Red River onto a remake of Gone With the Wind, with plenty of other references along the way — including the preposterously inappropriate outfit in which Kidman arrives in Australia and is taken to her late husband’s ranch in the outback, which is straight out of Katharine Hepburn’s wardrobe in The African Queen. For the first half-hour or so the film seems uncertain whether to go for serious drama or camp — the bar fight Jackman’s “Drover” gets involved in is like one of those blarney-filled “comedy” scenes we suffer through in John Ford’s movies to get to the good parts — but once Luhrmann and his co-writers settle down the movie triumphantly achieves the grandeur he was obviously going for.

It’s a trip we feel like we’ve been on before but we’re still being led confidently and serenely by a master director at the peak of his powers (and remember, this praise is coming from someone who thought Moulin Rouge! an overrated movie that choked on its own gimmickry) — he even managed to scout a canyon location of such natural grandiloquence I couldn’t help but joke, “Monument Valley, Australia.” There’s also a crucial subplot that gives what’s otherwise an 1890’s U.S. Western story 1940’s Australian cred: the Australian government’s controversial policy towards the Aborigines and in particular the mixed-race children of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers. (It probably happened the other way, too, but even a movie as expansive and daring as this one wasn’t going to open that particular set of raw wounds.) The government’s policy was to rip such children away from their mothers and send them to church-run schools — as one person puts it in the film — “to breed the blackness out of them” — much the way Native American children in the early 20th century were taken away from their tribes and boarded in prison-like schools, taught to worship Jesus, speak English and forget their tribal traditions. The Australian government didn’t stop this practice until the 1970’s and didn’t formally apologize to the Aboriginal communities until 2000.

In the film, the deceased rancher Maitland Ashley’s overseer, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) — who in the second act becomes the principal villain of the film after it turns out he’s not only engaged to King Carney’s daughter but is secretly in league with Carney to sabotage the Ashley ranch, Faraway Downs, and send Ashley’s best (but unbranded) cattle into Carney’s herds — has fathered two such children, one of whom, Nullah (Brandon Walters), becomes a sort of spirit guide to the (good) white characters. Along with his Aboriginal grandfather “King George” (David Gulpilil), who’s suspected of the murder of Maitland Ashley but was really framed for it by the true killer, Fletcher (who will later kill Carney as well to take over the cattle empire — and if this film had achieved the success it deserved Wenham, who makes the transition from unscrupulous businessman to raging psychopath far more credibly than most actors manage roles like this, would be well on his way to international stardom by now), Nullah is able to direct the cattle drive by supernatural means — a sort of so-called “magical realism” that in other movies all too often comes off as a lazy cop-out by writers who’ve written themselves into corners they can’t write themselves out of again by strictly materialist plot devices, but here turns into a genuinely moving story thread in its own right as well as a powerful metaphor for the white vs. indigenous culture clash that the film counterpoints with its other, more familiar (to moviegoers, anyway) clash between the upper-class white aristocracy and the down-to-earth proletarianism represented by the Drover (who, significantly, is never referred to by any other name, giving his character the sort of no-name quality Clint Eastwood had in his spaghetti Westerns).

Given how beautifully the cattle drive is staged and how well Luhrmann follows in the footsteps of the directors he’s clearly emulating, John Ford and (especially) Howard Hawks (indeed, given the relationship between the Kidman and Jackman characters I’m almost tempted to call the first half of AustraliaRed River — the straight version”), it’s somewhat jarring that the good guys get the cattle on board the British transport ship and win their race against the cattle baron just halfway through this 165-minute movie. Then the war clouds darken and Australia turns into Gone With the Wind in its second half — along with The Wizard of Oz, which is actually referenced directly (it’s shown screening at an outdoor theatre after the song “Over the Rainbow” has already been introduced in Nicole Kidman’s deliberately inept rendition — Nullah takes to the song and in particular to its message about “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”) — including one direct visual quote of Kidman and Jackman embracing while silhouetted against a bright orange sunset.

Jackman proves as convincing in his evocation of Clark Gable as he was earlier in his evocation of John Wayne, and though the war as presented is historically inaccurate (the Japanese did indeed dive-bomb Darwin, but two months later than the film shows them doing, and they did not actually land troops on Australian soil), the second half works not as a pendant to the more viscerally exciting first half but as a superior piece of filmmaking in its own right and a genuinely moving piece of drama, particularly when the Mission Island on which the Australian government has relegated all those half-Aboriginal kids is the first place the Japanese planes target and it’s touch-and-go whether Lady Ashley and Nullah will ever get together again. Though the film evokes so many old movies one really isn’t in that much doubt as to how it’s going to turn out — the good guys are going to get what’s coming to them and the bad guys are going to get what they deserve — on its own level Australia is a magnificent piece of filmmaking, achieving the grandeur Luhrmann was clearly aiming for.

Australia had a difficult production history, coming in at 50 percent over the original budget, and Luhrmann had particular problems casting the male lead; though Hugh Jackman is absolutely wonderful in the role he was only the third choice. The first choice was Russell Crowe, but his asking price was too high and 20th Century-Fox asked him to reduce it to bring the film’s whole budget down. Crowe refused, so Luhrmann then sought out Heath Ledger (obviously Luhrmann, given his druthers, would have wanted a genuinely Australian actor for this role!) — but Ledger turned it down to make The Dark Knight instead, and I can’t help but think that that was a major mistake. What Ledger needed back then was a role that would have got him away from the American celebrity race — back to his roots, as it were — the part in Australia would have suited him far better as an actor (I know it’s a minority opinion, but I still think Ledger was abysmally miscast in The Dark Knight and he won his Academy Award less for his actual performance in that film than for his unrealized potential and for having been passed over for Brokeback Mountain), and I can’t help thinking that if he’d chosen differently and spent those months making the film he should have been making instead of working himself into a tizzy over being unable to find any depth to the Joker and drugging himself into oblivion, he’d still be alive.

Also worth mentioning is the fascinating character of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), a rumpot who works as Faraway Downs’ financial manager and goes off on the cattle drive, where before he’s killed he teaches Nullah to play the harmonica — and though his instrument ties this film into Frank Capra’s oeuvre as well (the harmonica appears in Capra’s films as a sign of cultural innocence and purity) the performance is reminiscent of Edward G. Robinson’s marvelous “Cocky” Wainwright in the virtually forgotten film A Boy Ten Feet Tall (also a trek movie, though in Africa instead of Australia) and also some of the later acting jobs of John Huston and Orson Welles. One aspect of the film that rubbed me the wrong way was the racist Asian stereotype character of “Sing-Song” (Yuen Wah, who’s usually a stunt person in martial-arts movies), the Ashley family’s cook; it seemed a bit strange that a film with so strong an anti-racist message about Australia’s treatment of the Aborigines would lapse into such a demeaning portrayal of a person of color.

But that’s only a minor blemish on an otherwise great movie that I liked better than Moulin Rouge!, better than Pearl Harbor (though much of the bombing footage was stock from Tora! Tora! Tora! — one contributor even spotted an American battleship anachronistically parked in the background of Darwin harbor — the terror of being under an air raid came through much more strongly in this film than in Pearl Harbor), and —as much as I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire — I thought Australia was better than that, too. Thank goodness the DVD revolution (and the VHS and cable revolutions before it) have lengthened the commercial lives of movies enough that audiences that missed important movies the first time around have the opportunity to discover them later; Australia is a film that thoroughly deserves the kind of ultimate success The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane got after they flopped on their initial runs.