Friday, June 5, 2009

AUSTRALIA has ambitions to be a grand epic in the mold of such films as LAURANCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. But where David Lean was able to take such larger-than-life stories and imbue them with such a sense of realism that the audience was able to get caught up in the drama while still enjoying the spectacle, Baz Luhrmann lets you know right away that it’s going to be hard to take this movie seriously. The first scenes jump back and forth, introducing the characters like the opening song of a musical where everyone steps up in front of the chorus and sings a few autobiographical lines. This kind of shorthand is fine when you are there to hear the songs and don’t expect much in the way of drama, but when the drama is the point it defeats the purpose.

Not that there is much drama here in the first place. AUSTRALIA is pure melodrama. The antagonists are evil, the protagonists are noble, the plot is simple, and the comedy is broad. For almost the first hour it seems like you are watching a movie from the 1930s remade with the same techniques but using modern technology. Characters frequently look straight into the camera. The acting consists of mugging and broadly histrionic gesturing. There is even one matte shot where someone is obviously running in place beside a stationary truck while a moving background scrolls behind them. All this artifice and eye bugging prevents you from taking anything seriously. Perhaps this is intentional, since the movie is set in that time period, but it is jarring for the audience. And one wonders if it is entirely intentional when the background goes in and out of focus from one shot to another, a common problem that often signals the transition from a live shot to a composited one.

Later, as the movie attempts to become more serious, the tone changes. The characters are placed in jeopardy and the beginnings of the Second World War enter the story. There are fewer instances where a scene is deliberately artificial. But even then there are shots where the foreground and background are so mismatched that you are reminded more of the special effects in WIZARD OF OZ (which is heavily referenced in the film) than what audiences are used to seeing in this age of modern computer special effects and digital compositing.

Again, I can’t help but think that this is intentional. But just like the references to THE WIZARD OF OZ, it lacks subtlety. (Get it? Oz- Oztrailia? Ozzyland? You will because you’re going to have been beaten severely over the head with it by the end of the movie.) But if you can get past your willing suspension of disbelief being constantly challenged there is much to like about AUSTRALIA in spite of all this. The movie is beautiful. Luhrmann has an eye for composition and the photography of the Australian outback is breathtaking. The advent of HD widescreen has freed directors from needing to compose shots for later reduction to a 4x3 aspect ratio and Luhrmann takes full advantage of this. He also backs the camera up to allow for more wide shots, allowing the viewer to feel the expansiveness of the environment. The performances also follow the arc from pure artifice and melodrama to ambitions of seriousness. Nichole Kidman is the most obvious in changing from clownish to charming as both the story and her character change. Hugh Jackman isn’t given much to do but play the standard leading-man part that this kind of film requires, but he does so with appropriate sensitive machismo and (as usual) looks so good while doing it that you forgive a lot. David Wenham (Faramir in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy) plays the main bad guy, Fletcher, and in one scene will either appall you or give you a vicarious thrill as he repeatedly slaps a child actor across the face in classic Simon Legree fashion. While there have been a few kid sidekicks in movies that I have wanted to slap myself, the actor who plays Nullah, Brandon Walters, never seems to be annoying. His beatific smile and spunky portrayal keep him from being tiresome. And it’s a good thing since he’s in the movie as much as Kidman or Jackman.

Perhaps the one unsung hero of the production is Director of Photography Mandy Walker. The integration of studio shooting and computer compositing leaves a lot to be desired, but her ability to film on location, sometimes directly into the sun, is astounding. Had the movie been shot entirely in camera, she surely would have garnered a nomination from the Academy. As it is, her abilities combined with Luhrman’s musical staging results in numerous scenes where a character is shown in full figure (as on a stage) and is able to interact with something on the other side of the screen. When viewed on a large enough screen the effect is mesmeric and satisfying.

In the end, AUSTRALIA is a mixed bag. If it wanted to be a grand epic (and there is every indication that was the intent) it was hobbled by it’s director’s self-conscious cleverness and overwrought stylistic sensibilities. If it was meant to just be an overblown western it was hurt by its length and simplicity. Is it a David Lean movie filmed by Yahoo Serious or a kinescope shot with modern production values? I couldn’t tell. By the end of the first hour I was ready to do a Rifftrax sound track for it but by the time the credits rolled I had been entertained and caught up in the grossly manipulative presentation in spite of myself. It is undoubtedly an auteur theory film. Luhrman and wife Catherine Martin share between them credits for writing, direction, production design, costume design, and producer. The movie stands or falls on their artistic sensibilities. Whether it stands on the strength of the performances and the beauty of the presentation or falls because of the distracting special effects or self-conscious presentation is up to the individual.

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