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A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia
by Harvey Arden
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
Director, co-writer Baz Luhrman ("Moulin Rouge") set out to make a modern film with the effusively romantic style of "Gone With the Wind" in mind. He got some things right. It is sweeping, historical (1939 to early war years), grand, epic and endless. And, it features two actors who have all the qualities and chemistry to make much hay and not a little magnetism.
Exaggerated reality mixes with the spirit world where "The Wizard of Oz," plays a role in the saga as a model of spirituality to an aboriginal, half-caste boy who is as impressionable as a cut of clay and through whose eyes and narrative voice we get much of the story.
It may be a time for corsets, but they're hardly needed on the slender frame of one with the kind of metabolism this lady has.
In short order, Sarah learns that her husband is dead and that the ranch is being mismanaged and cheated on by scurrilous Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). When Nullah claims but can't prove that Fletcher has been seen driving her cattle over the river onto the land of the monopolistic and unscrupulous King Carney (Bryan Brown, "The Poseidon Adventure"), all she needs is to witness his cruelty and racial bigotry to order him off her land. He goes, with a warning--one that foretells his evil, and his role as Sarah's chief enemy.
Commisserating now about how she'll manage to get her vast herd of cattle to market in the port city of Darwin, the appearance of a man known only as Drover (Hugh Jackman, "The Prestige") rides in with the delivery of a string of horses. Obviously capable of driving the herd, Drover declines for want of an adequate number of men to perform the drive. When Sarah and every remaining ranch hand, down to the cook, accountant Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson, "December Boys"), Nullah's mother, who is also the housekeeper, and Nullah himself volunteer, Drover takes the optimistic view that they can get it done and agrees.
Nullah's aboriginal medicine-man grandfather King George (David Gulpilil, "The Tracker"), in his role of overseeing the ranch both from a high peak and from the perspective of spiritual guide with a significant power of magic, watches every step of the drive over vast lands and challenges. Projecting his power on the boy, he helps defeat Fletcher's plan to stampede the herd over a cliff in a hairy, supernatural bit of drama brought to the brink. The whole thing was ordered by Fletcher's boss Carrey to protect his sale of cattle to the military and, in the bargain, force Sarah into selling her land by defeat.
Obviously, the daily contact, quite evenings over a campfire, Sarah's evolution from uptight to down home, nighttime talks under the moon and other tides of romance, the two beautiful people are drawn together into their epic embrace and first kiss. However, when Sarah proposes that Drover take the job of ranch manager, his mantra, "No one hires me; no one fires me" forestalls perfect solutions. But, we're only about halfway through the yarn, which spins out to a very fat 165 minutes--so plenty of time to get down to the business of turning this sometimes farcical, marvelously mounted history lesson into a fully realized, big time movie romance.
It takes a continent's worth of nerve and extravagance to make a film like this in this way, throwing romance, greed, racism and spirituality into the fantasy mix. And, instead of making it all seem new generation, its old-school romanticizing makes it fall short of that target. By narrative style and scope of subject matter it also falls subject to problems of consistency, though a large audience of romantic is likely to put all that aside and take "Australia" close to its collective bosom.
Luhrman and his producers can count on especially romance-hungering housewives and other women. Meaning, they're likely to see profitable revenue numbers for it, but prevailing records are safe from breakage.
What went into it pretty much shows up on screen--all nine months of its production and a crew of 300.
The glamour quotient is as big as the land, with the lady returning to the land of her father's birth and her upbringing, and with the native son returning to the country of his birth. Kidman and Jackman are high tension wires with enough sparks at their touch to keep the projectors running on the hot side. She combines feisty loveliness with elegant beauty; while his handsome virility is masculinity at its iconic ideal. As for acting, this material doesn't come close to what either one of them have proven capable of.
Speaking of which, there's the 11-ounce gorilla of the piece--the capable young newcomer, Brandon Walters of actual Aboriginal descent. Much as love of him is a big part of the equation, and as adept as he is in hitting all the emotional buttons to pull it off, there's a precocity that dilutes the charm. Charm, to be effective, calls for a modicum of real ingenuous vulnerability--qualities that seem theatricalized here. Everpresent and vital, his obvious training and perfect awareness dampens the full flower of his large, spiritual-child appeal. But that could only be me.
Wenham is nothing if not hissable in the villain role; Jack Thompson equally stock as the drunk but smart character.
All of which makes for a nice evening out. Think of it as an after-dinner desert of melodrama. And bring a cushion for the long sit.
~~ Jules Brenner