Slate’s excellent movie critic Dana Stevens said of Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding (which I wrote about last week) that it looked like a promising first draft of a movie, the only hitch being that this was also the final one. This seems true for Baz Luhrman’s Australia as well, with one crucial exception. However unfinished and messy this movie seems, my imagination isn’t not quite vivid enough to picture how later drafts of the movie could have been fairly described as good, or even coherent. Maybe if Luhrman had decided to cut the number of genre boxes he wanted to check? Maybe, but probably not.
In press interviews Luhrmann talks enthusiastically about the passion he had for this project, but I can’t help but feel that at crucial times in the process his passion somehow blurred his artistic vision. His wish to say something (preferably substantive) about Australian-English relations, the assimilation of Aborigines, and the eternal human quest for love and self-discovery threathens to break this movie’s back at every turn. The unfortunate result is that he ends up saying what only amounts to emotionally flat platitudes and/or caricatures. I have no reason to believe that Luhrmann’s intentions are anything if not good, but the execution most definitely isn’t. At times it feels like he tries to cram a total history of Australia into a (very, very long) movie, foregoing character development for the symbolic tide of history.
You could of course be excused if you stopped expecting anything substantive from this movie in the first half-hour. The broad attempts at deeply cliche-ridden comedy would have been bad enough, had it not been for the fact they they definitively kill whatever shot at emotional depht this movie ever had, when it takes a turn for the more serious after having also checked the box for panoramatic western on its way to well-meaning yet slightly condescending native melodrama. The normally steady Kidman overacts grotesquely in the first third of the movie, but she doesn’t get much help neither from Hugh Jackman’s Crocodile Dundee-like stereotype, nor from the script. Bad jokes would have been more easily forgiven though, if the setup of a cluless yet surprisingly (sic) good-natured British aristocrat hadn’t seemed so utterly predictable for a film of such great ambition as Australia. The biggest problem is that Kidman fails to make me believe in how her character supposedly matures throughout the movie. It feels like Kidman keeps a distance from her character, and so there is no natural bridge between how her character acts in the beginning and at the end. Jackman struggles with the same problem, not least when it comes to the romance storyline. Since I keep considering Kidman’s character pretty much a distanced fake, I cannot get my head around why he would fall in love with her.
Some might be heartened to know that Baz Luhrmann The Show-Off is nowhere to be found in Australia. Doing a historical drama, he has not been tempted to update it or laced it was implicit pop culture references, which is fine with me too. What’s lost in this picture however, is the visual virtuosity that has lit up his previous movies. You could of course say that that would have undercut the more somber tone of the movie, but to me he did so anyway with the first half. The result is that Australia not only is a bland experience (at best). Worse still, it even looks like one.
Instead of visual artistry, he decides to let nature do the work for him. As seen in Into The Wild, this can no doubt be an honorable ambition, but here it’s a failed strategy. It’s one thing that the cinematography, however gorgeous, serves to confirm our already defined image of Australian, with the risk that the viewer feels that he’s watching an informercial about the pleasures of going Down-Under, more than a vibrant work of art. More troubling though, is how Luhrmann combines these beautiful nature images with long, sweeping scenes of old and wise, or young and curious yet always silent Aborigines. To me, this implicit link between Man and Nature threatens to reduce the Aborigines to being Nature, which would make it harder for the average viewer to identify with them. I’m not going to accuse Luhrmann of taking an imperialist viewpoint, since I have reason to doubt his motives, but I nevertheless found it a little condescending, but to me as a viewer, and to Aborigines as a people.
A couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that Australia was hoping for a late surge in goodwill to garner it some Oscar nominations, after most critics were left cold. While the Academy has made its fair share of mistakes in recent years, I still believe they will do the right thing and leave Australia out. I’m more interested in whether they will let Milk in.