It’s big and a bit dumb, utterly fantasticated and completely romanticized. It’s also kind of wonderful. Whether or not Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is a great film, it is one hell of a movie. I say that as a compliment. I also note that it’s old-fashioned—and that, too, is a compliment. The word “epic” gets tossed around these days with alarming frequency—to describe every effects-driven, big-budget behemoth that lumbers into town. It also gets used as a barometer of quality, which is even more absurd. Cecil B. DeMille’s movies were largely epics. They were also largely bad (camp value notwithstanding).
Australia truly is epic—and in a good way. In fact, it’s an epic in several good ways. It has the kind of sweep and wide-ranging geographical sense of an epic. The story and the characters are all larger than life. The scope of its ambition knows no bounds. It trades in the same kind of heightened romanticism as Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, with all that implies. There’s an innocence about both—a lack of cynicism and irony—that’s refreshing in modern film. Luhrmann’s worldview has a charming simplicity to it that somehow transcends itself to reveal less simple themes, rendering them marvelously lucid by not intellectualizing them. And Luhrmann puts forth his ideas in a straightforward manner (even if his style isn’t).
Much of Moulin Rouge! can be summed up in the altered lyrics of Marc Bolan’s “Children of the Revolution”: “No matter what you say, the show is ending our way. So stand your ground for freedom, beauty, truth and love.” The resonance of those words is incalculable. Here, much can be reduced to the film’s line, “Just because that’s the way things are doesn’t mean that’s how they should be.” Once again, the simple idea put forth so directly goes to the heart of the matter and the story in a way that imparts a weightiness to something that might otherwise be little more than an outburst—though admittedly a very beguiling one—of cinematic fireworks.
Comparisons to Moulin Rouge! don’t end there. Despite the idea that Australia represents a shift from Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy (comprised of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!), the approach is similar. Moulin Rouge! was a love letter to (mostly) 1960s and 70s pop music, the whole “All you need is love” mind-set of the counterculture of which the songs were a defining part, and also the musical romance. Australia is a love letter to classic epic movies as well as a love letter (if not an entirely uncritical one) to Luhrmann’s personal vision of the country itself. Great set pieces replace musical numbers against which the central romance is played. It’s not even much of a stretch to say that the Aborigines of Australia are a variant on the Bohemians of Moulin Rouge!. Luhrmann even copies the structure of the last part of his previous film: There’s a gunman attempting to kill an unsuspecting victim out of revenge with outside parties working to intercede in a deus-ex-machina manner.
The plot is deliberately simple and very much a movie plot—or perhaps plots. The whole “hate at first sight” that turns to respect and then to love, played by his quintessential movie star leads (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman), is classic Hollywood. So too is the thawing of Kidman’s “ice princess” and her growing attachment to the half-caste little boy (newcomer Brandon Walters), who serves as the underpinning of the film’s concerns about racism in Australian history.
Luhrmann has combined the elements of the Western and the war movie by dividing the movie into two parts (it really needed an intermission). There are echoes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) and even The Wizard of Oz (1939)—this last makes splendid sense in context, especially given the film’s open-faced acceptance of Aboriginal magic and mysticism, as well as the fact that for Kidman’s initially uptight Englishwoman, Australia truly is “somewhere over the rainbow.” All of it is used as a background to romance and the framework for at least four magnificent set pieces: a cattle stampede, the delivery of the cattle, a fancy ball and the bombing of Darwin.
There is a thematic quality at the heart of Luhrmann’s epic—concerning racism, sexism and the abuses of the Australian government against the indigenous people—and these are as keenly felt as anything of similar nature in the more socially conscious films of John Ford, like The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Donovan’s Reef (1963). There’s also something of the “thinking man’s” epics of David Lean here. I think the ideas are even more trenchant in Luhrmann’s film because they are almost subordinated to the grandeur of his visuals. They sting against the scope and beauty of it all, making them more powerful than any amount of speechifying could have done.
Australia is a cornucopia of romance and grandeur of a kind the world could stand a little more of. Whether or not it’s a great film hardly matters. That it’s gorgeous, rich, lush and possessed of a generousness of spirit, on the other hand, does. Rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language.