Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Australia: Wizards of Oz

Australia (2008) • View trailer for Australia
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, brief sensuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.26.08
Buy DVD: Australia • Buy Blu-Ray: Australia [Blu-ray]

Blend the giddy, wonderfully inventive editing and swooping camera movements of Moulin Rouge with the sort of old-style epic storytelling Hollywood hasn't made in decades, sprinkle with a precocious narrator and top with megastar wattage, and the result is guaranteed to be a great time at the movies.

Actually, the result is Australia.
The snobbish aristocrats flee indoors when their high-society dance is "ruined"
by a sudden cloudburst, but Drover (Hugh Jackman) and Lady Sarah Ashley
(Nicole Kidman) have the opposite reaction: They know this sorm signals the
long-awaited end of the summer drought.

Director Baz Luhrmann, undoubtedly thirsting for some way to match the crowd-pleasing success of his Moulin Rouge, returned to the land of his birth to delve into the WWII-era events that dragged Australia onto the world stage once and for all. Luhrmann doesn't work rapidly — indeed, this is only his fourth film, after Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge — but his visual creativity and storytelling talent grow with each new project.

We Americans still honor the bombing of Pearl Harbor each Dec. 7, an event that seared our national consciousness at a level that wouldn't be matched until the 2001 destruction of the Twin Towers. But in our characteristically myopic way, we have very little knowledge of what happened in Australia at that same time, back in 1941, when the same Japanese air forces also leveled the city of Darwin.

And that's only a single chapter of the ambitious saga concocted here by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. The story begins in 1939, with a slightly whimsical tone that misleads us into expecting the sort of hearty Outback adventure depicted in (for example) The Man from Snowy River.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), prim and proper to the point of near absurdity, has been left in London while her husband attempts to augment the family fortune half a world away, in the unforgiving terrain of Australia's Northern Territory. Contact is sparse, and Sarah grows impatient; she decides to hop a plane — dragging along what seems like half of London's fashion district in her scores of suitcases — and investigate the situation personally.

She arrives in the middle of a barroom brawl that has erupted because the man known only as "the Drover" (Hugh Jackman) has responded unkindly to a racist remark directed at his longtime mate, an Aboriginal stockman named Magarri (David Ngoombujarra). This dust-up is staged for maximum comic effect, and of course Sarah eventually discovers that Drover is the "reliable man" sent to bring her to Faraway Downs, where her husband has been struggling to build a cattle empire.

As far as Sarah and Drover are concerned, it's mutual loathing at first sight. (Naturally, we don't expect that to last long.)

Unfortunately, Sarah reaches her property only to find that her husband has been murdered, supposedly by an Aboriginal "witch doctor" named King George (David Gulpilil, an Australian film legend who debuted all the way back in 1971's Walkabout). King George is known to linger near the property, because he's keeping an eye on his grandson, Nullah (Brandon Walters, making an impressive acting debut).

Nullah shares an extraordinary bond with his grandfather; the two communicate through chanting and singing, and the boy has an unquenchable curiosity about all things musical.

Faraway Downs itself is on the brink of ruin, and manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) strongly advises that Sarah simply sell off the property and return home.

The story to this point — and from this point forward — is narrated by young Nullah, as captivating a presence as the similarly young protagonist who recounted Mel Gibson's quasi-magical exploits in The Road Warrior. Nullah's chopped English is heart-tugging from the get-go, the words tumbling from Walters' mouth as if he can't, in his enthusiasm, get them out quickly enough.

But for all his wide-eyed irrepressibility, Nullah is a tragic figure: a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy adrift in a rigorously segregated society that treats him as an outcast. He's vulgarly dubbed a "creamy" by the likes of Fletcher ... which is grimly ironic, since this sneering low-life is the boy's father.

On top of which, if Darwin's "civilized" Catholic church element catches wind of Nullah's presence, the boy will be snatched away from his mother and sent to the sort of ghastly orphanage depicted so well in 2002's Rabbit Proof Fence.

Sarah soon learns that Fletcher is much worse than a racist; although ostensibly working for her late husband, the station manager actually has been plotting with local cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), who aims to monopolize the entire Australian beef industry, and covets possession of Faraway Downs and its sturdy herd of four-legged steaks.

Names aren't accidental in this story, by the way, and make no mistake: What follows will be a contest between these two "Kings."

Back in Darwin, Carney holds the upper hand and is trying to force a contract to supply beef to the awakening Australian military presence ... at a price-gouging level that Capt. Dutton (Ben Mendelsohn) hopes to resist.

Having deduced Fletcher's perfidy, Sarah fires him; her dander now up, she determines to bring her cattle to market. Unfortunately, Fletcher has taken the crew with him, and she's left with pretty much nobody.

Until Drover reappears.

Roped into this English rose's harebrained scheme, Drover reluctantly agrees to lead a cattle drive with half a dozen misfit riders who include Sarah, Nullah, a couple of Aboriginal women and alcoholic accountant Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson).

Up to this point, Luhrmann's tone has been light, and his film has the rugged but playful atmosphere of, say, Howard Hawks' Hatari, with Jackman standing in for John Wayne, and Kidman the obligatory "useless woman" destined to smarten up and toughen up. Brown and Wenham make great villains: the former the backroom schemer, the latter the lackey willing to get his hands dirty.

Even now, though, this deceptively superficial "Western" has undercurrents of genuine tension, starting with the vulnerable Nullah's very presence; we've also already seen that Luhrmann isn't afraid to pull his punches, and tragedy enters these proceedings pretty quickly.

Then things really roar into full throttle, and the ride never lets up for the duration of the film's nearly three-hour running time. The stakes get higher, the tension waxes, wanes and waxes again, and you'll be at the edge of your seat, heart in mouth, for pretty much the entire final hour.

Jackman is a sturdy leading man, able to satisfy the extremely eclectic character demands placed on Drover. He has no patience for the racist swine who infect Darwin's upper-crust society, and is far more at home with Aboriginal companions, for which he makes no apologies. Drover's also an expert rider, horse whisperer and gallant doer of good deeds: a man of integrity who'll not back down from a fight that involves injustice.

Factor in Jackman's winning smile, and you can't miss.

Indeed, Luhrmann obviously recognizes the magnificent asset he has in his leading man, and the film comes with two iconic "Jackman moments" guaranteed to set female hearts a-fluttering across the land: the first out in the rough-and-tumble Outback, when the actor doffs his shirt for a soapy scrubdown; the second worlds and attitudes away, in Darwin, when Drover pops up in a perfectly tailored, cream-colored tux.

But Jackman is much more than good looks; his laid-back charm is a force of nature, and he also persuasively sells Drover's more serious moments, or his explosions of justified indignation.

Kidman, in great contrast, starts out as an object of near-ridicule, her prissy exterior almost laughably at odds with the steel Sarah tries — and initially fails — to inject into her tone. By design, Lady Sarah initially floats above these proceedings, refusing to embrace either this land or its people, as befits her aristocratic upbringing. The eventual thaw, slow in coming, arrives as this dainty creature becomes increasingly protective of Nullah.

We realize, suddenly, that Kidman's Sarah no longer is a comic stereotype, and has embraced both her companions and her new environment.

Thompson and Brown, both veteran Aussie character actors, capably fill their Outback archetypal roles. Wenham is an intriguing study: an apparently minor-league thug initially dismissed as inconsequential, who surprises us with both his resilience and capacity for evil.

Gulpilil's King George is fascinating throughout: particularly intriguing, given that his role is mostly silent.

But young Walters is the glue that binds this film; he's probably in more scenes that either Jackman or Kidman, and the young actor rises to the challenge, and then some.

Cinematographer Mandy Walker shoots these proceedings to emphasize the Northern Territory's lush expanse, and the film stock has the rich color and razor-sharp resolution of classic John Ford Westerns. Production designer G. Mac Brown has his hands full, whether going for tired and baked, as the dilapidated Faraway Downs is introduced, or establishing the harbor at Darwin, warships at the ready, but waiting like sitting ducks for what is to come.

Composer David Hirschfelder's dramatic score is appropriately sweeping and orchestral, while music supervisor Anton Monsted makes canny use of source songs, none better employed than Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's "Over the Rainbow."

I can't remember the last time I had so many emotions tweaked during a film, while also having this much fun. Oh, wait, yes I can: It was during Moulin Rouge.

Australia will similarly pack 'em in during the entire holiday season.

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