Australia: a belated review

Notes written at 12,000 metres. On various planes between Australia and Europe going hither and yon I had the chance to see most of the film Australia.

Ive just filled in on most bits I missed going hither (from Beijing to Helsinki) going yon (from Helsinki to Honkers). There was an extensive European interlude in between these two flights youll be relieved to hear. I was tempted to go to the cinema to see it, but decided I didnt want to have the feeling of being ripped off and more importantly I thought I would be bored.

I was pretty right to have avoided it I reckon. What films has Baz Lurman done? The things I know of are Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Australia. I presume Im missing something since he made ballroom well over a decade ago; perhaps Im missing several films. Anyway I enjoyed Ballroom, quite a lot really partly because I lived next door to the co-star Tara Maurice in Burgman College and it was fun watching her play a young Spanish girl and seeing how she went. (though its always a problem watching people you know act they necessarily take so much of themselves into any role necessarily so, that its hard to judge how well theyre acting. They just seem like theyre them and going through the motions of being someone else).

Anyway Ballroom was pretty corny which is not really a criticism. It was a formula boy meets girl, quests with her and wins the comp. There was a politically correct touch Taras characters father was a Spanish dancer who teaches the Aussie boyfriend how to really do a paso doble. But it was all a lot of fun as well as being fun to watch.

Ballroom was also hiding behind irony. It was a corny just OK told story but it was full of pop art style irony. This, it turns out, was Baz Lurmans signature. I didnt see Romeo and Juliet but it seemed like a good idea to translate it all into the modern gang idiom.

Then there was Moulin Rouge. MR was a completely extraordinary movie. A kind of cross between the soapiest soap opera and Bertold Brecht, it seemed that Lurman instinctively reached for irony to disguise what seemed to little old me like a complete shambles.  I never quite got to the stage of taking it seriously, so perhaps I missed something. If you didnt see MR, it consisted of a story about a girl in the Moulin rouge who was being pursued for some reason Ive long since forgotten by a mustachioed Richard Roxburgh (another acquaintance from my uni days) who was communicating using the words of pop songs. I kid you not. So I think it was him or it may have been Heath Ledger or someone else who said to Nicole its a little bit funny, this feeling inside, its not one of those I can easily hide.

Well enough said really. It is ironic, but Im afraid it wasnt much else.

Then there was Australia. I was appalled and excruciated.

The opening is so ironic that it is just excruciating. OK, Baz we get the joke, youre sending up Australias ockerdom. Youre sending up yourself, and everything you clever fellow.

Anyway, I pressed on. Things calm down a bit and a bit of a story gets going. The story is predicable, and pretty awful, but it was quite entertaining and by the end of the first half I deplaned as John Clarke would say and wondered if Id be able to get hold of the second half on my way back and also wondered if Id bother watching.

Now theres a problem in criticising how realistic Australia is thats the insurance policy Lurman has taken out with the trowel load of irony hes laid into each scene.

But the test is always kind of the same, did whatever they did allow someone to say something, present something new, or insightful in some way, some slice of life that rang true? Or was it good entertainment, which to some extent amounts to the same test. Well theres a short answer and it has two letters and an exclamation mark.

Seeing most of the second half didnt change any of these thoughts. But it did hammer home something that was looming in the first half. The aboriginal themes which blossomed like those flowers that are the biggest flower in the world and which stink of rotting flesh while theyre flowering.

In Australia Aborigines are our shadow side only theyre our good shadow. All the ways were bad or lost or reprobate, theyre good or found or saintly. Theyre magical to our eyes, I sung you here says Nulla the little half-caste kid who is at the heart of the story and is very well played most of the time. He says that about five times. Theres King George who can foretell the future, spear things at a single bound, and conjure up all sorts of magic. Then theres the black stockman who tells Hugh Jackman that hes really running away from something a woman. (This is after seeing Hugh looking down in the mouth for about five minutes). Im not making this up.

Aborigines are all good, all maligned, misunderstood, but never by the goodies. The goodies never treat aborigines with disdain, condescension, frustration, they know it all. Of course if you ever read any stuff from that time, blacks were called savages, niggers and treated with what wed think of as disdain and thats by people who were sympathetic to them. But the lot in Australia are way better than that. Theyre more or less sitting around in between wars Australia waiting for the Democrats to come into existence so they can vote for them (not that Ive got anything against the Democrats.) Certainly none of them even from memory the cardboard cut-out baddies who presumably vote Country Party do anything as distasteful as smoke.

Hugh Jackmans character has married a black. But hes got nothing to say about the politics of it. Hes not bitter – well perhaps he is, but just like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca theres nothing specific about his bitterness that can be related in some contextually specific way to his experiences. Hes just your rough edged blokey hero.

Nicole is OK I guess, in her stilted way. If this is reconciliation count me out. I note that Marcia Langton said it was a new kind of dreaming for Australia. It seemed to me the worst kind of 1950s condescension to native peoples of the kind where the natives come out and do a native dance in grass skirts for the tourists to take pictures of while the bus is refueling. They even had aborigines going walkabout. Well perhaps thats a good description of what aborigines go, or what they go when living in white society. But I remember that word from my days as a kid in the 1960s and they called the lovely Evonne Goolagongs lapses of concentration at Wimbeldon going walkabout. I cant hear it without associating it with the ad mans patriotism and grass skirt natives.

Anyway, you guessed it, at the end of the film Nulla has to go hes gotta go walkabout you see. An aborigines got to do what an aborigines got to do. And dont use flash cameras please.

What a pity Lurman shied away from just having a go at an honest epic. I certainly wouldnt have minded that.

Well not such a pity really because if the epic had the aborigines in it it was always going to suffer from excruciation of the second if not the third degree.

Its not that I didnt find quite a few bits quite moving. I had tears in my eyes on several occasions how else can one respond to the innocence of an innocent child being rescued even it its fiction. But as a whole the film was, Im afraid, serious, cringing and cringe-worthy crap.

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denningesque
denningesque
12 years ago

I’m with you. Australia was ‘orrible! For different reasons though. It was a pastiche of themes of some truly great American movies. But a dogged eared and two dimensional take on them. Bits of Red River, A Big Country, the Cattle Queen of Montana (and other Barbara Stanwyk vehicles) are all stitched together with some truly dreadful writing. The characters were in the main two dimensional; grim ruthless cattle baron with evil side kick, loveable drunk (ala John Ford style) etc and the perennial hate grows to love story of the two main characters. I have no problems in borrowing from the classics. One of the best Coen brothers movies, Millers Crossing, is a heavy lift from Alan Ladd’s “The Glass Key.” Pacino’s Scarface is a pastiche of Edward G Robinson’s and Jimmy Cagney’s work of the thirties.

As with lousy writing the Aboriginal characters were too cute/ too wise. It was all so unsubtle. Their involvement did not advance the story proper or act as even a decent back story. It was as if those “issues” had to be stuffed somewhere into the film. I hear it cost $180 million. If they had poured more into story development and script writing and less into CGI it would have been a better product.

I thought Luhrman’s best work was Strictly Ballroom and Romeo and Juliet. They were both exuberant and good stories well told (not hard with the latter). I found MR all style and very little substance. And I am still to get what the directors see in our Nic. I loved her in Dead Calm and To Die For. Other than that she has two modes; dull & shrill.