In the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest United States and northern Mexico lives an agave called the Century Plant, which for years grows quietly without fuss or bother; then suddenly, shoots a massive flower on a huge stalk upwards towards the sky in an extraordinary, extravagant efflorescence.
Like the Century Plant, since "Moulin Rouge", Baz Luhrmann has been hoarding his energies for a massive, extravagant epic: "Australia", starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. And like the Century Plant's flower, this movie is a wonder to behold - an exclamation point in motion picture history. Like his celluloid predecessor, John Ford, who defined the essence of American character in dozens of westerns (making a star of John Wayne, among others), Luhrmann attempts to define the Australian national character: but in a single motion picture.
In many ways, "Australia" is the most ambitious single motion picture ever attempted. Luhrmann states what it is to be an Australian: what it means. No one has ever used a single motion picture for such a purpose! Most nations have relied on epic poetry to define who they were: The Iliad for the Greeks, the Aeneid for the Romans, La Chanson de Roland for the French, Niebelungelied for the Germans, Beowulf for the English.
The Americans have relied less on poetry than political invention - the Constitution and related documents. Nevertheless, American authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Australian authors like Banjo Patterson, have tried to fill the need for such national narratives using the materials at hand, such as they were.
Australian and American histories have several important parallels. Both Americans and Australians are English-speaking peoples who grew as British colonies, incorporated many immigrants, and subjugated native peoples. America has several national narratives from which to choose, however: the rebellious colonists, the log cabin frontier, the nation torn asunder by the Civil War, the energetic urbanizing people, and finally with the dime novel and the western, the great Cowboy epic popularized by people like Ford.
Under-populated Australia has been hampered in a similar project, however, partly because the original Botany Bay material seemed so hard to work with, but also because the great void at the center of the country seemed to defy definition. The deserts of the interior drove people apart rather than together. Someone like Baz Luhrmann was needed to render the inchoate material into a more solid story.
Luhrmann places his story at the beginning of World War II, a sobering moment in Australian history, when it became clear that the British Imperial Navy could not protect the country against Japanese expansion. Yet, "Australia" is not just a war story. Like Ford, Luhrmann incorporates the Great Cattle Drive into the story: this time the effort by a motley crew of cowhands to break the back of the malevolent Carney Cattle Empire and help supply the Allied armies at Darwin.
New found interest in the Stolen Generations is woven into the story too. The kids taken from Aboriginal parents out of a misguided colonial civilizing mission are represented by the child, Nullah. The same family disruption happened in the American West too, of course, but interestingly, John Ford and his colleagues never saw the motion picture potential there.
Luhrmann also has an ear, of course. Since Luhrmann also has a great interest in the musical as an art form, his film is far livelier than anything Ford attempted. Australia, the Land of Oz, also needs a theme song: the ineffable "Over The Rainbow" (1939's "The Wizard Of Oz" may well be the most-popular film ever Down Under). And like Dorothy says, "There's No Place Like Home!"
In short, this is one amazing movie. Academy Award material all the way! This is a massive, Century Plant kind of effort to reach film immortality; to outdo "Lawrence Of Arabia", or "Dr. Zhivago", or any film predecessor, and venture where no filmmaker has gone before.
Here is a portion of what Derrick Bang wrote for the Davis Enterprise. He certainly seemed to like it: the longest movie review I've ever seen in that newspaper, and five stars to boot!:
Blend the giddy, wonderfully inventive editing and swooping camera movements of 'Moulin Rouge' with the sort of old-style epic storytelling Hollywood hasn't made in decades, sprinkle with a precocious narrator and top with megastar wattage, and the result is guaranteed to be a great time at the movies.
Actually, the result is 'Australia.'
Director Baz Luhrmann, undoubtedly thirsting for some way to match the crowd-pleasing success of his 'Moulin Rouge,' returned to the land of his birth to delve into the WWII-era events that dragged Australia onto the world stage once and for all. Luhrmann doesn't work rapidly - indeed, this is only his fourth film, after 'Strictly Ballroom,' 'Romeo + Juliet' and 'Moulin Rouge' - but his visual creativity and storytelling talent grow with each new project.
We Americans still honor the bombing of Pearl Harbor each Dec. 7, an event that seared our national consciousness at a level that wouldn't be matched until the 2001 destruction of the Twin Towers. But in our characteristically myopic way, we have very little knowledge of what happened in Australia at that same time, back in 1941, when the same Japanese air forces also leveled the city of Darwin.
And that's only a single chapter of the ambitious saga concocted here by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. The story begins in 1939, with a slightly whimsical tone that misleads us into expecting the sort of hearty Outback adventure depicted in (for example) 'The Man from Snowy River.'
...Up to this point, Luhrmann's tone has been light, and his film has the rugged but playful atmosphere of, say, Howard Hawks' 'Hatari,' with Jackman standing in for John Wayne, and Kidman the obligatory 'useless woman' destined to smarten up and toughen up. Brown and Wenham make great villains: the former the backroom schemer, the latter the lackey willing to get his hands dirty.
Even now, though, this deceptively superficial 'Western' has undercurrents of genuine tension, starting with the vulnerable Nullah's very presence; we've also already seen that Luhrmann isn't afraid to pull his punches, and tragedy enters these proceedings pretty quickly.
Then things really roar into full throttle, and the ride never lets up for the duration of the film's nearly three-hour running time. The stakes get higher, the tension waxes, wanes and waxes again, and you'll be at the edge of your seat, heart in mouth, for pretty much the entire final hour.
...Cinematographer Mandy Walker shoots these proceedings to emphasize the Northern Territory's lush expanse, and the film stock has the rich color and razor-sharp resolution of classic John Ford Westerns. Production designer G. Mac Brown has his hands full, whether going for tired and baked, as the dilapidated Faraway Downs is introduced, or establishing the harbor at Darwin, warships at the ready, but waiting like sitting ducks for what is to come.
Composer David Hirschfelder's dramatic score is appropriately sweeping and orchestral, while music supervisor Anton Monsted makes canny use of source songs, none better employed than Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's 'Over the Rainbow.'
I can't remember the last time I had so many emotions tweaked during a film, while also having this much fun. Oh, wait, yes I can: It was during 'Moulin Rouge.'