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Mates in the outback: (l-r) Kidman and Jackman in Australia.

A Bland Down Under

By Laura Leon


Directed by Baz Luhrmann


The afternoon I saw Australia, I was really in the mood for a grand, sweeping and romantic epic, the kind in which the heroine is both lovely and plucky, and the hero, while looking snazzy in a white dinner jacket, can send shivers down the spines of said heroine—as well as any badasses who threaten to interfere with either of them. Yes, I’m feeling older, and I deal with too many spineless yes-men. Australia—just its very name and the images of wild natural grandeur that it conjures up—seemed just the ticket to get me out of this particular funk.

I knew I was in trouble pretty early in, when Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, looking so rail-thin as to crack at the mere idea of being embraced by her costar) arrives in rough-and-tumble Darwin in an attempt to round up her errant husband from his failing ranch Down Under. Meeting her at the docks is the Drover (Hugh Jackman, aka the costar who could easily break Kidman’s skinny backside), and, because this is Australia, mate, he’s engaged in a blockbuster barroom brawl, the purposes of which are only to serve to show that this is a wild frontier, populated by rugged individualists. Unfortunately, screenwriters Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan fail to imbue any of the movie’s characters with individualist traits.

It’s a given that the Lady and the Drover will hate each other at first sight, but that love and lust eventually will rule the day. Often, the road to that moment is fun and sexy—think To Have and Have Not, for instance. Director Baz Lurhmann, however, doesn’t seem too invested in guiding his engaging costars in any such manner, which is a shame. Kidman has never been more relaxed and unself-conscious, as witnessed in a funny scene in which she attempts to sing “Over the Rainbow” to half-caste Nullah (Brandon Walters). For his part, Jackman is dark and handsome, rides well, and fights convincingly, but he is not given the material or the chance to break out of basic introspection.

The movie traverses the widths of the continent by way of a cattle drive and later, the onset of World War II, and much is made of the multicultural nature of the country. Lady Sarah proves to be quite color-blind when it comes to the populace, particularly the motherless Nullah, at her late husband’s ranch, and the Drover’s best friend is a black man. These touches seem plot driven, rather than a natural extension of people having lived in and loved a place. Too often, black characters die to prove their devotion to their oh-so-not- prejudiced white friends and employers (how nice for those whites). There are occasional threats to Sarah, mostly in the person of the odious Neal (David Wenham), but, come on, how sinister can a guy be who arranges for the irresistible Drover to meet Lady Ashley? Talk about a plan gone horribly awry. Completely wasted is Bryan Brown, who, for my money, would have been a truly formidable challenge, in more ways than one, to the lead couple.

Ironically, Luhrmann’s camera does not induce the awe-inspiring reaction that other films set in grandiose landscapes—any of Ford’s westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West, of course Lawrence of Arabia—do. Besides a lot of terra cotta mountainsides and crackled desert, most of what we see of Australia is the environs of Lady Sarah’s Ralph Lauren-ish ranch and, later, burning flames amid a dark and smoky port. Lurhmann focuses instead on trying to create funny, usually campy moments between characters, an odd juxtaposition when, in the next instant, the ranch is being threatened yet again or Nullah is in danger of being sent to an orphanage. Clearly, the rampant prejudice and discrimination that children such as Nullah experienced are savage and worthy of a compelling story of their own, but when the charming boy embarks upon a walkabout at the movie’s conclusion, the sight of Sarah bidding him a maternal farewell rings false. It’s as if neither Nullah nor his shaman grandfather (David Gulpilil, by far the most interesting presence in the movie) are capable of deeming the appropriate time for this rite of passage; that’s a privilege that must be bestowed upon them by the fair white lady bountiful.

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