Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 November 2008

Australian Epic Is Derivative, Boring, and Goes on Forever

Baz Luhrmann, who hasn't made a full-length feature since 2001's manic Moulin Rouge! dropped a bomb this weekend. That bomb is called Australia. (I am not sure why this one doesn't have an exclamation point at the end.)

Australia is a film about a young Australian boy in the 1930s and the two people who come to see themselves as his parents. The young boy (whose name is Nullah) narrates the film and tells us that what is really important in life is storytelling. He will, therefore, tell us a story.

The story he tells us is one you've heard before. Uptight British lady comes to the Australian desert and lets her hair down, learning a lot about herself and the land in the process. She also falls in love with the rowdy, unkempt-but-incredibly-sexy ranch-hand who drives her cattle. Sound familiar? It isn't just that the general plot of Australia is completely predictable. Any audience member with half a brain can see every single plot point a mile away: to wit the sexy ranch-hand (Hugh Jackman) is immediately repulsed by the snobby British lady (Nicole Kidman); but then she impresses him with her occasional ability to stop her snobbery; she proves herself the equal of a man; she is allowed in to drink at the men-only bar (that's a plot point in Out of Africa too!); WWII arrives; everyone presumes one another dead; no one turns out to be dead; it all ends happily. And in case you are at any point confused as to the plot (as if you could be), Luhrmann provides stodgily written narration to help you along. This lasts two hours and forty-five minutes.

Not all of it is boring. There is a lovely sequence where the small boy (who falls in love with the song "Over the Rainbow") goes to the movies for the first time and gets to see The Wizard of Oz. Actually, Australia quotes The Wizard of Oz several times and whenever it does, the film tends to work just a little bit better. There is a rather funny sequence where Nicole Kidman sings "Over the Rainbow" and there is much talk of wishing, dreaming, rainbows, and going home. Australia, however, doesn't really want to be The Wizard of Oz; what it really wants to be is Gone with the Wind. It is neither.

The acting is rather bad all around; Hugh Jackman is passable, but the characters are all so stilted and cartoonish that it is hard to find any honesty anywhere in the film. The costumes are beautiful—easily the film's best attribute. The score is intelligent but it never really works emotionally. Almost nothing in the movie really works.

Two more things about the film, both of which have to do with Peter Jackson. While I was watching Australia, I kept thinking that Luhrmann had made a movie after Moulin Rouge! but I could not think of it for the life of me. The movie I was trying to think of was King Kong. As you know, this is not a Baz Luhrmann movie, but Australia reminded me of Jackson's King Kong a lot. Both filmmakers are clearly obsessed with CGI. But, see, the CGI in King Kong looked real to me. The CGI in Australia almost never looks real. There are long shots of landscapes and wide arial shots of the North Australia shore and the Northern Territories' night sky, but they always look computer-generated and they never look believable. It actually becomes quite distracting. It's as though the cartoony plot and cartoony acting bleeds into the landscape and that becomes cartoony, as well.
The other thing Australia has in common with Peter Jackson's brand of filmmaking is both directors' insistence on a Manichaean worldview. The good guys in Australia are so very good, and the villains are the most reprehensible, unforgiveable, horrible people you can imagine. Even when the director has the opportunity to introduce nuance he avoids it. He will not allow these characters to be complicated in any way. The bad guys are bad guys and the good guys are good guys who just need to learn a lesson or two.

There is more to say, of course. The film is racist in a lot of ways. It claims, for instance, to be a picture about inclusiveness and anti-prejudice, but Luhrmann's camera always turns its focus toward the white people in the story. Black people should be given equality in Australia, but not equality in the frame.

But there are worse things to say about Australia than its vaguely racist sensibilities.
Australia is boring.
And really long.
And you've seen it before.