Sunday, April 12, 2009

Australia: Grade F

Australia (2008)
Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman; Co-writer and director Baz Luhrmann.

Kidman is an English aristocrat who goes to northern Australia just before the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942. Her husband is dead but she decides to continue running the cattle ranch with the help of ranch-hand Jackman. There is some predictable humor as the city girl confronts the grit of the outback.

The movie is actually a concatenation of two stories, which explains its 2 hour plus running time. In the first story, she must get 1500 head of cattle to Darwin before the monopolistic cattle baron King Carney sews up the contract with the army. A ragtag crew is put together, including herself on horseback, speaking politely to the cows (guffaw!), a drunk handyman, and a cute aboriginal boy. Together they endure many misadventures as they drive the cattle for several days. The landscape is beautiful and beautifully photographed. There is a subtheme of the boy’s relationship with his grandfather, an aboriginal shaman who seems to live in the wild, away from any community. In the end, the cattle arrive on time, she gets the contract, saves the ranch, earns her spurs and falls in love with Jackman. What more could you want?

Then the second movie starts with the Japanese invasion. There is much fire and destruction, the boy is captured by Catholic missionaries and taken away, and Kidman is separated from Jackman. Each assumes the other has been killed, but then there is a sentimental reunion with swelling violins, and you’d never guess this part, the young boy is returned safely also! Everybody goes back to the cattle ranch happy, healthy, and whole.

The acting is terrible, even from Kidman, who is a master of the craft, so I would have to put that down to bad directing. Everybody barks their lines without context, while gestures are pure canned ham. Even Kidman’s famously expressive facial twitches are exchanged for slack-jaw farce. At first I thought all this was supposed to be ironic, because the movie has the feel of a 1960’s television show, like an extended episode of Bonanza. But it’s not ironic, it’s just bad.

Music is exceptionally obnoxious; loud, irrelevant, in-your-face orchestration that instructs you what to feel at each moment. The aboriginal theme is trivialized rather than explored. CGI effects are primitive, intrusive, and unconvincing. The narrative is just one cliché after another, utterly predictable, cloyingly sentimental. The second story was perhaps supposed to be a Gone With the Wind or Casablanca sort of epic showing individuals as pawns in a larger historical drama, but if so, that failed also, because the individuals were only cardboard cutouts and the war story only perfunctory. Is the great Australian scenery enough of a value to save this movie from failure? Not quite.

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