Suspicious of her husband’s stalling with the sale of their last asset, Faraway Downs in Australia, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) sets out from England to take matters into her own hands. She is met in Darwin by The Drover (Hugh Jackman). On the overland journey to Faraway Downs, they discover a profound, mutual dislike. After an unexpected turn of events, a part-Aboriginal child, Nullah (Brandon Walters), makes his way into Sarah’s life. Nullah reveals that the ruthless station manager, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), is plotting with cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) to take over Sarah’s land. To save Faraway Downs, Sarah must join forces with The Drover to drive 1500 head of cattle across northern Australia to Darwin and sell the cattle to the army – before Carney can sell his – including the ones he stole from Faraway Downs. She, The Drover and Nullah are joined by a misfit band from the station and shadowed by a mysterious Aboriginal magic man, King George (David Gulpilil). But Sarah’s new ‘family’ is torn apart in the chaos of the Japanese bombing of Darwin.
Review by Louise Keller:
Epic in the true sense, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia exhilarates by its grand themes and physical grandeur, while emotionally it’s the soulful look in those huge chocolate eyes of a little aboriginal boy that churns our sense of truth. Twelve year old Brandon Walters as Nullah, is indeed a rare find and it is his voice that tells Luhrmann’s story that encompasses topics as vast as spirituality, greed, discrimination, love and war. Australia is Luhrmann’s ambitious vision and the filmmaker has taken heed of his own mantra that a life lived in fear is a life half lived. He’s gone for broke and the result, while true to his vision, will divide opinions. The film looks magnificent but is far too long. The star power is dazzling but I didn’t believe the central characters or their relationship. Nonetheless, it’s an engrossing experience and one whose indelible images of a strikingly beautiful land linger.
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman may be heralded as the film’s stars, but the real star of Australia is the landscape. There is nothing like the majesty of a herd of wild brumbies galloping across the dusty plains. Or stampeding cattle on the barren red desert, pounding hoofs melding with the frenetic percussion of David Hirshfelder’s imposing score. The dazzling rock formations, the arid earth, the contrasting waterways and the glorious sunsets, all shot to perfection by Mandy Walker. Catherine Martin’s attention to detail when it comes to costumes and production design is legendary. We are engrossed by the power of the land and the mystical qualities it exudes. Walter’s Nullah is the little half caste boy, who belongs to no one and whose future lies in the balance as issues of the Stolen Generations impinge.
Heartthrob Jackman is earthy and sexy as the Drover (‘That’s how it is; it doesn’t mean it’s how it should be’) and Kidman, with clipped British accent is suitably haughty as the snooty aristocrat whose reserve is punctured. But there’s little chemistry between them – their spontaneous dance in the outback and that kiss in the pouring rain is purely cosmetic. Bryan Brown is totally believable as the scheming King Carney but doesn’t have enough screen time, David Wenham is terrific as the sadistic Neil Fletcher and Jack Thompson is in top form as the booze-loving accountant. The contribution from the aboriginal cast, namely David Gulpilil and David Ngoombujarra is outstanding, plus many other Australian actors make a fine contribution, including, Essie Davis, John Jarratt, Ben Mendelsohn and the always excellent Barry Otto.
The detail which Luhrmann has injected into this project is incredible and probably impossible to fully appreciate on first viewing. Even the inclusion of Rolf Harris’s famous wobble board plays its part as does the way the musical themes from The Wizard of Oz and Waltzing Matilda weave their way into the fabric of the tale. As the credits roll, we take with us the spectacular imagery of a unique, vast land, as well as the haunting face of an innocent little boy whose culture is becoming invisible.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It’s not the size that matters most in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, it’s the many details, the intimate, personal moments, the connection with and respect for the Aboriginal culture in the context of human interaction, and the evil that greed makes men callously do. But that’s not to dismiss the gloriously dramatic landscape that Mandy Walker captures with great finesse, nor the sweep of the story over two important years, up to the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese.
And as we would expect from Baz, he makes maximum use of music; and I’m not just referring to David Hirschfelder’s marvellous score. What a leap of cinematic faith it is to weave into this rich story the best known song from The Wizard of Oz, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, making it an iconic and symbolic glue for the cultures and the dreams of the characters. This is for me the film’s most sophisticated and complex element, a piece of creative brio. A whole essay could be written on this – and probably will be.
Also as you would expect from a cast made up of the most experienced and well known Australian actors, the performances are excellent – especially once the film’s dramatic engine is switched on. Like David Wenham doing venom as Neil Fletcher . . . But the performances of the lesser known actors, like Lillian Crombie, David Ngoombujurra as one of The Drover’s team, and especially young Brandon Walters as Nullah, the storyteller through whose eyes we see it and by whose narration we hear it, are wonderful revelations.
There are a couple of quibbles; one to do with the detail of the ending (not the ending itself), another to do with poor continuity in the same scene; and perhaps some of the performances at the beginning of the film are a little brittle and see-through. The other quibble is with the scene of a dozen Big Red kangaroos bouncing alongside a truck in the desert, as if taken from (or intended for) a Tourism Australia commercial.
But these things don’t stop us engaging with the film, and some of the big moments, like the cattle stampede towards a precipice, or the bombing of Darwin and subsequent rescues, deliver their payload of tension and carry us to the next chapter.
The romance between The Drover (Hugh Jackman - solid in every sense) and Sarah (Nicole Kidman – nicely judged character arc) is carefully calibrated and well judged – and executed, albeit the one bedroom scene, while tasteful and stylish, is oblique and short. It’s a family film ...
Perhaps above all, credit to the storytelling, so frequently and sincerely celebrated throughout the screenplay in the context of its importance to all human beings. This film was always going to sink or swim on its ability to deliver a story that lives up to the extraordinary expectation (unfairly) placed on Baz and Catherine and the entire team.
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LATELINE - ABC TV
Lateline Host Tony Jones talks to Andrew L. Urban and James Valentine about Australia and the Australian Film Industry.
LATELINE - ABC Channel 2, 10.30pm Wednesday November 19, 2008 (Video & transcript)
CAST: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, David Ngoombujarra, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, Jacek Koman, David Gulpilil, Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Spence, John Jarratt, Bill Hunter, Essie Davis, Barry Otto, Arthur Dignam, Max Cullen, Sandy Gore, Crusoe Kurddal, Kerry Walker, Angus Pilakui, Lillian Crombie, Yuen Wah
PRODUCER: G. Mac Brown, Catherine Knapman, Baz Luhrmann
DIRECTOR: Baz Luhrmann
SCRIPT: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan (story by Baz Luhrmann)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mandy Walker
EDITOR: Dody Dorn, Michael McCusker
MUSIC: David Hirschfelder
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Catherine Martin (& costume design)
RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 26, 2008