Thursday, April 02, 2009
The fourth film from director Baz Luhrman is one of those "sweeping epics" set in, oddly enough, Australia, during World War II. The aptly titled "Australia" gives us a new perspective on the far-reaching effects of the second great war, this time from Down Under, a view that I appreciated, since not many films have tackled that period from that angle.
Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, an aristocrat from England, who comes to the faraway and mysterious continent and finds herself in charge of her recently murdered husband's ranch. A cattle war is brewing, and King Carney (Bryan Brown) is the dastardly competitor who will stop at nothing in his attempt to monopolize the cattle trade and gain the contracts that will feed the troops as they fight the Nazis. Things get more complicated when she meets The Drover, the dashing, rough and tumble outback cowboy and cattle driver played by Hugh Jackman. Drover's intention is strictly business as he helps Lady Ashley move her cattle to Darwin to be sold, but a romance soon develops. A second complication arises as Sarah grows more attached to the recently orphaned aboriginal half-breed, Nullah, well played by a very striking and magical-looking kid named Brandon Walters. Nullah is in hiding because, at that time, it was common for aboriginal children to be taken from their "savage" environment and assimilated into the more "civilized" white culture. The three protagonists are bonded during their adventures and must battle Carney's blood thirsty henchman, Fletcher (David Wenham), as well as the Japanese air force, which leveled the city of Darwin during a bombing raid.
As I said, it's Lurhman's fourth film, and while I have not seen his first effort, "Strictly Ballroom," I have seen the last three and have enjoyed them all. As with those last three pictures, "Australia" pops right out of the gate with an all-out frontal assault on the senses, utilizing narrative, narration, and a carpet-bombing of expository information and jarring tonal shifts from dour and serious, to playful slapstick. If you stay frosty, you can follow it well enough. Just make sure you aren't popping the popcorn and watching from the kitchen for the first ten minutes. I'm not sure if the film settles down after a while, or if the viewer becomes inured to it. I found that with Moulin Rouge as well. It's become a signature of Lurhman's films.
Watching this one on Blu-ray is the only way to go. The golden browns and burnt oranges of the countryside (assisted by Mandy Walker's outstanding cinematography) are gorgeous, there's also a scene at a big dance where beautifully colored lanterns float above the party-goers. A very nice image. And the sub-woofer-melting "bombing of Darwin" sequence stayed with me as well. And, hey, I'm a breeder, but that shot of Hugh Jackman dumping water all over himself for a quick desert bath is burned-in too. I guess the sequence where Drover stops off at the local Outback Crunch Gym to work out with his personal trainer for a few hours probably ended up in the Avid trash bin, no worries.
The Blu-ray has a pretty swanky menu system. I found some of the button responses rather slow but it could be my Philips player, hopefully your results will be different. I find that with a lot of Blu-rays. I suppose that will work itself out as the technology improves. The disc includes many extras but I found the featurette about the history of that period in Australia to be particularly useful in keeping the story in context. Lurhman, who also wrote the film, did a lot of research and tried to keep the story as grounded in reality as possible. I found the film pretty satisfying and Lurhman keeps the main story small enough to matter and it doesn't get swallowed up by its gigantic backdrop.
One of the themes running through the film is that all one really has in life is "their story." The Drover is just "trying to live a good one" and Nullah's grandfather, the aboriginal shaman tells him that "telling a good story is the most important thing in the world," so a movie that sets that up as its goal needs to deliver, and I think this one does manage to "tell a good story." Nice work, Baz.