With the news this week that Moulin Rouge! The Musical is officially coming to Broadway (hardly an unexpected turn after its Boston tryout largely drew raves), I found myself wondering if Baz Luhrmann is done with director feature films, ready to simply shovel dollars into his bank account from the revival of his greatest success. It’s been five years since he made The Great Gatsby, and there have been few signs of a follow-up. Of course, Luhrmann takes his time. His adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel arrived five years after its predecessor, a bumbled epic depiction of Luhrmann’s homeland. I originally posted this review of Australia at my former online home.
I feel for Baz Luhrmann. Every frame of his new film Australia practically quivers with his desire to see a old school Hollywood epic set in his homeland. He wants to see a classic cattle-drive-fueled western, and a war epic, and a sweeping romance–everything that filled the screens of his youth with Technicolor wonderment–but flavored with his own culture. Kangaroos instead of buffalo, Aborigines instead of Indians. He sets out to make this film, this conglomeration of his loves, with such earnestness that it sometimes feels unkind to callously laugh at the final result. The problem is, no matter how much empathy you dredge up for Luhrmann, he’s made a film that awfully laughable. Laughably awful works, too.
Nicole Kidman plays an upper crust wife who heads down under shortly before World War II to discover she has just become a widow and her husband’s ranch has become a desolate, arid failure. There’s villainous rival ranchers to contend with, and a rugged, handsome drover (conveniently named Drover) to aid her. It proceeds with the breathless, misty-eyed, simplistic conviction of an artless romance novel. There’s a dearth of surprising moments in its two hour and forty-five minute running time, each beat of the plot parceled out with the intent to maximize swooning and sniffling. The story is narrated by an Aboriginal child and the script often seems like something only a unjaded, unskilled youth could create, from the clear cut morality to the awkward insertion of Australian touchstones like kangaroos, boomerangs and oversized bottles of beer. I’d accuse Luhrmann of pandering, but it’s hard to conceive of a constituency so detached from the mechanics of movies that they’d be enthralled by this silliness. The gentleman that Luhrmann recruited to play a mystical figure is apparently so detached from modern media that he was unaware that his old acquaintance Jimi Hendrix died decades ago. Maybe that guy would find this film fresh and inventive.
Given this, there’s little for the actors to do. Indeed, Luhrmann barely seems to ask anything of them. Beyond some early persnickety clowning, he’s seemingly brought in his Moulin Rouge! star Kidman primarily because he likes the way her long slender frame fits into his shot compositions. Hugh Jackman as Drover is even more clearly mere set dressing. He stands shirtless with his implausibly chiseled form (it looks like the product of dedicated time in the gym rather than relentless toil across the outback) to be gaped at like the centerpiece of history’s most masculine Dolce & Gabbanna ad. He’s a bauble, nothing more.
Luhrmann’s love of excess has served him well in prior films, translating into a spirited audaciousness that elevated the material. Here, it’s a distancing factor, plowing under recognizable human emotions to leave the moldy loam of craven cliches. Luhrmann so wanted to craft a modern classic. Instead, he presided over something closer to a disaster.