In 1939, with Europe on the brink of war, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) makes the dangerous journey from England to northern Australia to join her husband at his cattle ranch, Faraway Downs. Arriving to find the ranch in a dilapidated state and her husband dead, seemingly at the hands of an Aboriginal witch doctor (David Gulpilil), Sarah is faced with the option of selling up to rival cattle tycoon King Carney (Bryan Brown) or attempting to run the ailing ranch herself. Against all advice she opts for the latter, and decides to personally take the cattle to sell in Darwin. Assisted by a ragtag band, including a young native boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), and a self-sufficient cattle drover (Hugh Jackman), she sets out on this perilous trek across Australia’s inhospitable desert.
One thing Baz Luhrmann can never be accused of being is ordinary. With his debut, the charming Strictly Ballroom, continuing to look increasingly out of place in what can only be described as the filmography of a madman, the former stage director has carved his own niche in the movie business, creating absurdly gaudy (not to mention expensive) melodramas which in their own unique way marry the mood and storytelling of a bygone era with a modern-day aesthetic. So iconic are Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! of the tail-end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, respectively, that it’s easy to forget that the man has only directed four features, of which Australia, the most recent, opened to lukewarm reviews and underwhelming box office takings. The world, it seemed, or at least the critics, had concluded that there was no need for an Aussie Gone with the Wind, less still one made almost 70 years after the real thing. If I was in a particularly cynical mood, I might also feel inclined to point out that it had the dubious fortune of opening when the world economy was in tatters, and that the negative critical reaction and less than impression ticket sales could be seen as a reaction against the very sort of expensive over-indulgence that had brought about the recession in the first place.
It’s a shame, because Australia is rather good indeed. No, it certainly doesn’t re-invent the wheel, and yes, those with an aversion to schmaltz would be well advised to run for cover, but as Mark Kermode is fond of saying about films which accomplish exactly what they set out to do, “it is what it is”, successfully resurrecting a type of moviemaking that has regrettably fallen out of favour of late. After all, nothing Luhrmann does is strictly speaking new: he simply dresses up the hits of yesteryear for a contemporary audience. Just as Romeo + Juliet grafted Shakespeare (prose and all) on to a contemporary teenage romance and Moulin Rouge! brought the cabaret act into the twenty-first century, Australia does the same for the sweeping epic melodrama, with Huck Jackman and Nicole Kidman standing in for many a Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. In that regard, Australia is to Hollywood cinema of the 50s what Quentin Tarantino’s films are to 70s grindhouse fare. (Of course, whether you consider that a good thing or a bad thing is down to personal preference.) Throughout, Luhrmann’s love for both the period and its cinema is readily apparent, evoking a catalogue of iconic moments from the golden age of Hollywood. It becomes very difficult to critique the film for being sentimental, clichéd or simplistic because you get the impression that the man behind the camera believes so completely in the world he has created. There’s nothing whatsoever cynical of calculated about it: it’s simply a celebration of romanticism, replete with breathtaking vistas, soaring musical arrangements and long, meaningful stares between the photogenic leads.
It’s also unapologetically funny. I admire Nicole Kidman a great deal for her willingness to make a fool of herself, and she does so with considerable gusto in the first half of the film. There’s a greater depth to the character than simply being a ridiculous, pompous aristocrat removed from her natural habitat, however, and this becomes evident as the story progresses. Hugh Jackman, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as the gristly Drover, a mountain of a man who, with his cowboy gear and fedora, conjures up images of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti western days. Apart from the landscape itself, however, the real star of the show is Brandon Walters as Nullah, the young biracial boy to whom Sarah takes a shine. Nullah narrates the film and is clearly its centrepiece, despite the top billing of Kidman and Jackman, serving as the film’s emotional heart and providing the perspective of someone with ties to both the world of the Aborigines and that of the white settlers. His is a nuanced, wholly unaffected performance and one that succeeds in overcoming the somewhat flawed nature of the film’s treatment of the tensions between white and Aboriginal culture. Being a product of the 21st century, the film unsurprisingly takes a decidedly politically correct approach to the themes of racism, sexism and segregation that it skirts around but fails to address in any meaningful way. Sarah Ashley and the Drover come across as decidedly anachronistic: purveyors of modern-day morality in a large 30s/early 40s setting. Well-intentioned though it may be, there’s something rather insincere about this treatment of serious subject matter.
At close to three hours, Australia is a long haul, and by the time the third act comes round, it may begin to outstay its welcome a little, while the palpable shift in tone may jar with some. Whereas the first two hours balanced the elements of comedy, tragedy and swashbuckling adventure fairly evenly, the tone suddenly becomes unrelentingly bleak when the Japanese begin their bombing of Darwin. At this point Luhrmann, perhaps for the first time ever, reins in his flamboyant style. This unexpected shift, while somewhat jarring, is remarkably effective in hammering home the reality of the period while bringing all the simmering conflicts to a head. The outcome is never in any real doubt, but Luhrmann does manage to twist the knife on several occasions, and the sight of the ruined, smouldering city of Darwin in the aftermath of the Japanese air strike (convincingly rendered via CGI) resonates greatly.
It’s to Baz Luhrmann’s credit as an entertainer and storyteller that this sprawling epic rarely feels overlong and doesn’t outstay its welcome. While the first two hours simply serve to confirm his talents as a purveyor of flamboyant, deliberately over the top melodrama, the final hour also establishes him as being capable of more serious fare – something that even the fundamentally tragic conclusions to Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! failed to convey. The latter is still probably his best film in an all-round sense, but Australia is far from the clunker that word of mouth may have suggested, and in many ways serves as a welcome antidote to the oppressively grim direction that mainstream cinema seems to have taken recently. Perhaps that’s precisely why it failed to ignite at the box office: at the moment, it seems that to simply be entertaining and escapist is unfashionable. As I always say, however, I’d rather watch a dozen escapist fantasies than a single “worthy” effort that mistakes boredom and condescension for importance. Australia is escapist fantasy in the best possible sense, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Blu-ray Disc Presentation
Australia arrives for UK audiences on a dual-layer BD-50 disc that is unfortunately coded for Region B only and also comes with the latest version of the malodorous BD+ protection system. The AVC MPEG-4 encode presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and takes up 33 GB and has an average bit rate of 28.57 Mbit/sec (including audio tracks).
The film looks very good from start to finish, although it doesn’t look quite as crisp as some titles I could mention. While far from unpleasant to look at, a very slight hint of softness lingers throughout, although I’ve no idea whether or not this was digitally induced. There is certainly nothing processed-looking about the image, barring a couple of shots that appear to have been artificially sharpened (for instance, shots of Nullah climbing on the water cooler at 00:04:25 and again at 00:30:12 appear to have been manipulated in this way and as a result suffer from some pronounced ringing), and the grain is nicely rendered throughout. In addition, despite the lengthy running time and fairly average bit rate, compression artefacts are never an issue. It may not reach the dizzy heights of the absolute best the Blu-ray format has to offer, but the image is very nice indeed and is unlikely to cause any significant complaints.
For audio, we get a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and an audio descriptive track in Dolby Digital 5.1. The former is an impressively engrossing affair, showcasing the intricate sound design which gives a real feeling of ambience to the film’s setting, complementing the visuals nicely. The dialogue does at times become somewhat submerged amid all the sound effects, which coupled with the rather thick accents can make it difficult to decipher, particularly during moments of intense action.
Subtitles are provided in English and a variety of other European languages for both the film and the extras.
At first glance, the extras may seem a little limited, but there is in fact a reasonable amount of material on offer. First up are a couple of deleted scenes, both of which take place during the film’s first act and aren’t really missed in the finished cut.
The extras which follow these are exclusive to the BD version, at least in the UK. First is a featurette which sketches the historical backdrop and locations used in a very vague form. At 7 minutes, this piece is far too short and would have benefited greatly from being expanded.
Up next are a collection of behind the scenes “webisodes” originally distributed online. Geared primarily towards would-be filmmakers, they cover a variety of aspects of the production, ranging from the obvious (the use of CGI and studio recording to augment the footage shot on location) to the downright obscure (the role of the sound recordist). While perhaps of limited value to those without an interest in the nitty-gritty of film production, I definitely appreciated this more scholarly than usual look at the process. The total running time for these featurettes is just over 70 minutes.
All of the extras – even the webisodes – are presented in 1080p high definition. A useless Digital Copy disc is also thrown in to jack up the price. Please also note that missing from the UK release are the three trailers which accompany the US version.
Those already acquainted with Baz Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain” trilogy should know what to expect from Australia, a bold, sweeping epic that tugs shamelessly at the heartstrings and celebrates a type of filmmaking that has long since gone out of fashion. Fox’s BD release may seem a little limited in terms of extras but scores points for its impressive A/V presentation.
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