I had the pleasure of attending a swanky preview screening of Australia last night (champagne mini-bottles! salmon and lamb hor'doerves! Free Smith's Crisps and Boost bars on every chair!).
Before the film began, the Wah and I had a chat about what cliches we believed would crop up during this almost three-hour-long epic. Obviously some things (such as the romance, the bombing of Darwin) were expected after the saturation marketing and media coverage of recent weeks. But we constructed a fairly comprehensive list of other plot devices and character types we would be fairly confident putting money on occurring.
How close were we? Careful - spoilers.
*Fistfights/pub brawls. Check. (within the first 10 minutes)
*Droving accident. Check. (spooked cattle; a cast member dies)
*Wisdom of indigenous elders. Check. (Gallapa/King George the Magic Man)
*Evil land baron wants Nicole's land. Check (David Wenham should have a moustache and tie women to railway tracks, he's that comically evil)
*Evil land baron uses heavies/burning stables to get her land. Check (to a point - the heavies frighten the cattle with fire to force a stampede - see Droving Accident)
*Impossible to be together. Check (Hugh has to be free! To roam the land!)
*Nicole discovers a kinship with the land/deeper meaning. Check.
*Rescue by indigenous friends. Check.
*Respect for indigenous friends. Check.
*Play an instrument - harmonica or guitar. Check. (Totally nailed this one)
*Campfire stories. Check.
*Haunted by past love/tragedy. Check.
*Bush dance. Double check.
*Accidental nudity/voyeurism - possibly at a water hole. Check. (Hugh's a great advertisement for bucket watering. He glistens! Glistens!)
*Racism. Check. (Oh my word yes - see Campfire Stories; Haunted by Past Love/Tragedy/Fistfights)
So out of our list, the only thing that didn't occur was a natural disaster - unless you count "the drought", which I don't, because they then have "the wet". What we forgot - perhaps in hindsight because it's so obvious - is "Self-Sacrifice". There was a helluva lotta that too.
I must admit, I let myself get completely swept up by the movie. Director Baz Luhrmann's obviously paying tribute to the great action/adventure/romance movies of Hollywood's Golden Era - like Red Dust, or Gunga Din, or even The African Queen. Let it be said - it is no Gone With The Wind. But it tries, and because I love that movie - and movies of its type - I decided to open up to Australia.
As evident by the list of hoary old cliches above - it's flawed. The dialogue is often laughably simplistic, the characters two-dimensional, some of the acting stiff and wooden (hello, Bryan Brown). The transition from great outback adventure movie to war movie is clunky, but it's softened somewhat by the character of Nullah, the son of a black woman and white father, whose story is far more compelling, and the performance of newcomer Brandon Waters so captivating, that if you don't tear up on at least one occasion, then you're an inhuman beast with charcoal where your heart should be.
Yeah, I'm looking at you Wah. ;)
David Wenham is laughably, laughably, evil. It's like he's walking around with a sign saying "Bad Guy" around his neck. Everything "bad" in the film traces directly back to him - I'm just surprised they didn't try to set him up as a Japanese spy or something, calling Emperor Hirohito to tell him when to send in the Zero fighters. Bryan Brown is fairly unimpressive, and Ben Mendohlson looks half-embarrassed as an army captain.
The positives? Aside from Hugh Jackman's chest?
Well, Nicole Kidman is better than I expected. I'm really not a fan of hers, and yet I found her performance entertaining. Her character provides most of the comedy of the first half of the film, and she pulls it off well -over the top, but amusing. She hits her acting stride in the last third of the movie, during the bombing of Darwin. Hugh Jackman is all stubbly goodness, but I wish he hadn't laid on the Strine accent so thick. He's meant to be a bit gruff and grizzly, sure, but there were a few too many "sheilas" and "crikeys" for me. Jack Thompson does sozzled station manager well; Ursula Yovich as Nullah's mother Daisy gives a touching performance.
It's also beautiful to look at. Baz Luhrmann excels at visuals, you have to give him that. The big set pieces (the cattle stampede, the bombing of Darwin) are brilliantly shot. It's also very respectful to its indigenous story, which focuses on Nullah and what happened to the children of the stolen generations. It makes some nice points about the hypocrisy of a society that justified its abuse of indigenous women by claiming it was "breeding the black out".
Ultimately it's a film that's big, bold, snazzy, and yes, cliched. But hey, it's going to do better business that most other Australian films - maybe not among Australians, but definitely overseas. The delivery may not be perfect, but the fact the film has ambition is what endears it to me.