Posted in Film, Personal Response

Australia – the film

Cover of "Australia"
Cover of Australia

This is a piece I wrote a few years ago after seeing the film AUSTRALIA.  Last night I watched it again and decided to post this piece.

AUSTRALIA – “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
~A Personal Response~

Every once in a long while comes an epic film that completely sweeps me off my feet. As a child, I would love to spend a Sunday afternoon curled up in my nest to watch the great epic films of Gone with the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, Ben Hur, Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, and Out of Africa. These films would transport me across time and place and developed my insatiable love for a great story; such stories I could often only find hidden within the pages of great books. As time passed, and I grew older and wiser, I continued to find enchantment with epics that would occasionally emerge – The English Patient, Saving Private Ryan, Titanic (yes that one too), Gladiator, and the more recent entries of Troy and Atonement. These films, due to essence of their genre, always managed to weave their magic on me and turn my adult wisdom into child-like innocence and awe. True to form, Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, Australia, completely wooed me last evening.

Australia is truly a breathtaking heroic epic that crossroads Australian stories of the attack on Darwin during World War II, colonizing ranchers, folk tales, and the Aborigine’s Stolen Generation. Australia uses all the magical ingredients of an epic film: sweeping landscapes, legendary characters portrayed by Hollywood’s élite , mystical foreign lands, treacherous antagonists, decorative costumes, dramatic lighting, harmonious musical scores and poetic motifs – where human drama is set against the backdrop of a society in conflict. But in the aesthetic theatrical genius hands of Baz Luhrmann – recall Moulin Rouge – this film takes the concept of epic one step further into a transformative shamanistic dreamy semblance of cinematic artistry and symbolism that delivers on the motif dream of taking us “somewhere over the rainbow”. This is mix of ingredients that my innocent heart indulged in and was completely swept away into the land of Oz – Aussie-land that is!

To begin, we must consider the land itself – the majestic landscape of the Northern Territory in Australia. Initially, the landscape is barren, desolate and unforgiving, and like Lady Ashley (Kidman), the viewer is left wondering what would ever draw someone to settle in such a bleak locale, especially in the dry season in this tropical arid land. However, as Lady Ashley begins to “see” the real beauty of the land – with its ravines, rivers, and billabongs, so too, do we. Throughout the film, we are mesmerized as the landscape transforms into a tropical heaven of greenery, waterfalls and flora during the wet season. It becomes a landscape that embeds into our hearts and we too fall in love and want to stay transported in this bewitching place.

Not only does the landscape bewitch us, but so too does the bewitching star-power cast. Nicole Kidman is pure enchantment as she delivers a dynamic and fascinating character that begins in snooty caricature of a haughty English grand dame, but transforms into a beguiling, brave and alluring heroine. Hugh Jackman is our hero (in a legendary kind of way) who is magnificent as a rugged loner who forsakes society and their social mores to stay true to his freedom as a drover (cattle herder), and who is more at home in the aborigines world than the colonial world of Australia. Jackman’s character makes the women in the audience swoon and makes men relive the cowboy heroic ideal of their childhood. There are a host of wonderful Australian actors who add their talent to this show, but the greatest charm is the new blood of 11-year-old Brandon Walters who shines as the child Nullah. Nullah as the central figure – and our innocent-eyed narrator – is an orphaned, half-indigenous victim of the Stolen Generation. Walters’ innocence, energy and charm completely wins our heart with the flash of his smile, the mischievous twinkle in his eye, or the singing of his angelic hypnotic voice. This film follows the innocent journey of Nullah as he finds happiness and identity by following the dream promised to him in The Wizard of Oz! Walters proves that he does have the acting chops to stand up with the likes of Kidman and Jackson. This is a special array of characters and these actors really made them unforgettable.

Although Australia is a hit in terms of entertainment value, it is also a film that educates us historically, morally and ethically. World War II, the colonial exploitation of New World resources, and the prejudicial mistreatment of indigenous societies are not new concepts, but the perspective shift to look at these through the unique Australian experience was enlightening. These are weighty issues that have carved a common history in the world and Baz Luhrmann’s confident exploration of them has really brought them into a modern sensibility.

In North America, there is little to no mention of how World War II affected Australians. Yet their vulnerability to Axis Japanese forces – at least in the North – was the same as any European country to the Nazi’s. It really puts into perspective the scope of what a “world war” means. However, the war really becomes the catalyst for the romantic war backdrop reminiscent of a Casablanca or a Gone with the Wind where the survival of love – mother, father, and child – becomes a battle of survival against enemy bombs, bullets, and bloodshed. Perhaps this romantic side is trite, but nonetheless, it does satisfy.

Not only does the war become a historical lesson, but so too does the story of colonization. We become witness to the ruthless greed of capitalism and the profiteering of indigenous cultures to serve and support this greed – a reality throughout the world – but again told from the perspective of the Australian experience. However, with contemporary morals, our hero and heroine defy the prejudicial feudalistic social mores of the day and attempt to transform their “Faraway Downs” ranch into a multicultural mosaic that embraces a unity and extended family morality. This utopian existence – “somewhere over the rainbow” – continues to be challenged by the corruption of a villainous rival rancher who not only desires a capitalistic monopoly on the cattle trade, but also feels he must righteously destroy the “unnatural” dream-like utopia of white-folk who have the audacity to treat their “hired help” and their adoptive “half-bred” child as equals. The film takes this historical reality and transforms it into an ethical battle that is conquered by our “outsider” heroes.

The ethical battle takes on a greater importance as the film elucidates the global issue of both genocide through eugenics and identity-theft that whites have exploited throughout the history of colonization. In Australia this racial battle is known as the Stolen Generation of mixed-descent children. This issue of subjugation, by erasing cultural “savagery” through assimilation laws and missionary education work, becomes yet another antagonist in the film as we see Nullah attempting to hide from the authorities that would forcibly remove him from his home and family, in trying to expunge his cultural identity. Ironically, this lonely mixed-descent child’s personal conflict is that he doesn’t feel acceptance or identity in neither his father’s white world nor his mother’s Aborigine world. This Aboriginal world is mystical and foreign to many of us, but Luhrmann respectfully entrances us with the rituals and customs of this spiritual culture. So, as weighty as these ethical issues are, we – the audience – are appeased with the blend of both ideals where he finds familial love and acceptance by his adoptive white family, yet he still embraces his adventurist shamanistic instincts. His identity is reclaimed in the best of both worlds!  Although this is a melodramatic compromise, it is satisfying!

Ultimately, Australia may be formulaic – albeit with a hero and heroine on equal footing – but it fulfills the dreams and ideals of this formula by delivering a blockbuster hit. It is a return to the classic romantic epic film and Baz Luhrmann is resplendent as a modern storyteller. His sagacious choices of locale, cast, and storyline – along with his virtuosic cinematograph talent – combine to create a film that transports our hearts and minds to another place and time, as it fulfills our child-like desire for the enjoyment of a great story that inspires and illuminates.