It’s a mystery to me how Baz Luhrmann continues to be regarded as a director worth following. A long time has passed since I’ve regarded his lush, loud, defiantly unsubtle output with anything but dread. In Australia, his new romantic-epic-Western-protest-war drama, Luhrmann’s dedication to cliché has become so absolute, it starts to verge on a kind of genius. There’s not a single music cue that isn’t obvious (swelling strings to indicate heartbreak, wailing didgeridoo to signal aboriginal nobility). Nary a line of dialogue is spoken that hasn’t been boiled down, like condensed milk, from a huge vat of earlier Hollywood films (Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Out of Africa, and various John Ford cattle-drive pictures being the most obvious referents). But to marvel at the purity of Australia’s corniness isn’t to imply that the movie functions as so-bad-it’s-good camp, or guilty pleasure, or anything else involving aesthetic enjoyment. Audiences without a vast appetite for racial condescension, CGI cattle, and backlit smooches will sit through Australia with all the enthusiasm of the British convicts who were shipped to that continent against their will in the late 18th century.
Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a tightly wound British noblewoman who comes to Australia with the intention of selling her philandering husband’s remote ranch, Faraway Downs. Upon arrival, she learns that Lord Ashley has been killed—purportedly by an aboriginal “savage” but actually, as it turns out, by a scheming local rancher (Neil Fletcher). To save her farm from being seized by this mysteriously motivated villain, Lady Sarah must oversee the drive of 1,500 distinctly digital-looking cattle to the port at Darwin. To do so, she hastily assembles an unlikely team of cowpokes, including herself, a legendary local horseman known as the Drover (Hugh Jackman), and an orphaned Aboriginal boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters, who also narrates the movie as part of a framing device).
After their arrival in Darwin, the band is subjected to a fresh set of indignities. Meddling missionaries seek to apprehend Nullah, who’s become like a son to Lady Sarah, and send him to an isolated school for half-caste children. Sarah and the Drover have fallen in love, but their relationship is showing the strain of his long absences on yearly drives (or “droves”—if there’s one thing you learn in this movie, it’s that Australians never use the word “drive” in a cow-related context). And World War II looms on the horizon as Japanese bombers approach the Australian coast.
Hugh Jackman, with his Broadway-ready sincerity and bendable plastic physique, has just the right level of fakeness for a part like this (and I mean that in the best way; Jackman’s synthetic virility can be charming in the right role, and he seems perfectly at home in Luhrmann’s hokey universe). Kidman often shares that curiously artificial quality, so you’d think the two would be perfect as two action figures banged together in front of a scenic backdrop. But Kidman’s performance here feels tense and uncertain. She overacts in the opening, broadly comic scenes and never finds the right tone thereafter. When she tries to comfort the newly orphaned Nullah with a half-remembered version of “Over the Rainbow,” Kidman doesn’t seem like a woman struggling to liberate her long-repressed maternal feelings; she seems like a genuinely cold bitch reluctantly attempting to feign empathy. But the character’s incoherence isn’t all Kidman’s fault; the group-written script makes her conversion from effete aristocrat to weather-beaten cowgirl happen virtually overnight.
I guess I don’t know enough about Australian racial politics to opine at length on this movie’s vision of its aboriginal characters, but I will say that if my people were subjected to this simultaneously idealizing and condescending “magical Negro” treatment, I would seriously consider aiming a boomerang at Baz Luhrmann’s head. All of the native characters, especially Nullah’s grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil, who played the lead in the infinitely superior 1971 film Walkabout and who has been seen in many roles since), are benevolent, preternaturally gifted, and ultimately subservient to the white leads. Though much is made of Sarah and Drover’s all-but-parental relationship to Nullah, he never stops calling them “Boss” and “Mrs. Boss.”
During the film’s long and troubled production, Luhrmann shot more than one ending and screened the results for Australian focus groups before choosing which to use. (You can read more here if you don’t object to some minor plot spoilage.) But over the course of its 165 minutes, the movie plods through at least three apparent endings. (The first one comes one hour and 15 minutes short of the actual conclusion.) Had I been included in that focus-group audience, I could have voted on my favorite ending before the screening was even through. I’d have cast my ballot for whichever one came sooner.