In 10 Words or Less
A slice of Aussie history from its finest filmmaker
Loves: Baz Luhrmann, Moulin Rouge, visually inventive films
Likes: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman
Dislikes: Period pieces
Hates: War movies, Westerns
I'm a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann's work, and consider him to be a genius in pretty much anything he attempts, and the results of his work, be it his movies, his album or his production of La Boheme, are at least intriguing, and usually fantastic. He's truly an artist, marrying storytelling and visual style to create not just movies, but experiences. So when he spent several years to craft an epic tribute to his home country, there was no doubt that I would be there to check it out.
That said, this is not a Baz Luhrmann movie, if by "a Baz Luhrmann film," you mean a confection, a mind-bending mix of sight and sound, disguised as a conventional movie. While there are certainly moments of visual dynamite to be seen in Australia, and the overall movie is simply gorgeous to behold, this is as old-fashioned as a movie could be today without being a parody. A mix of westerns, classic drama and war movies that takes place in a pre-World War II Australia, it doesn't feel out of place alongside the classics of the studio systems, thanks to the performances by two of today's most timeless leads, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, guided by Luhrmann's beautiful mind.
Lady Sarah (Kidman) is a wealthy Brit making her way to Faraway Downs in the Outback to straighten out her family cattle business, believing her husband is using the time away to have some fun on the side. Instead, she finds him dead, and is faced with a failing ranch, a greedy competitor in King Carney (Bryan Brown) and a classically evil foe, Fletcher (David Wenham) who must be distantly related to The Duke from Moulin Rouge. Her only help arrives in the form of Drover (Jackman), a traditional outlaw cowboy who finds himself attracted to the priss, yet determined aristocrat with a flair for riding a horse. Their connection is quickly forged during a cattle drive, but this tale of business dealings and wilderness adventure is far from the only story Luhrmann has to tell about his homeland.
The other two thirds of this very long (165 minutes) but very packed film cover two of the lesser-known aspects of Australian history: the systematic abduction/enslavement of mixed-raced Aboriginal children (a practice only outlawed in 1973) and the Japanese attack on Australia following Pearl Harbor. The former is represented by Nullah (Brandon Walters,) a child living in fear of capture at Faraway Downs, who adopts Sarah and Drover as parental figures, and the latter draws everything together as the Axis bombers fly over the near-mythic pristine nature of 1940s Australia. The movie couldn't have asked for a more sympathetic character to build around than Nullah, as Walters (aided spiritually by King George (legendary David Gulpilil)) is sweet, funny and open, making it exceedingly easy to pull for him. It also helps give extra meaning to the scenes following the attack, as the story is bigger than just these two lovers, as racism remains in tact even when the walls come crumbling down.
You can almost see the neat divisions that make up the movie's three acts, but that only helps enhance the traditional feel of the film. One gets the feeling that if it was presented in black and white (something you should try, as it's stunning,) you'd think it really belonged on TCM, as the staple characters (like the Chinese cook and the minority servants), the classic compositions and understated framing let the acting get all the spotlight. Jackman will break your heart with his stoic face, Walters has the most genuine face a child actor has offered in some time, and Kidman, for probably the first time, doesn't have her beauty do the bulk of the work, creating a new kind of character for herself. Even the massive action scenes, of which there are a couple, don't get saddled with bombast, presenting subdued devastation.
The one place the "true" Luhrmann peeks through is in the King George character, an omnipresent guide for our heroes, who represents the commonly-held view of native religion and spirituality as something otherworldly or mystical. The Aborigine wanders through the film in his loin cloth and face paint like a silent guardian angel, tossing a bit of the fantastic into the gritty world of Australia. Considering how foreign the land down under can seem, this touch of mystery feels wholly appropriate.
We received a pre-retail screener, so we have no details on the packaging, but the disc has a nicely animated anamorphic widescreen menu, with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the special features. Audio options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, while subtitles are available in English and Spanish (though my player indicated French was also included.)
As we received a watermarked pre-retail screener with alterations to the image, we cannot review the video at this time. When we receive retail versions, we will update this section.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track wasn't nearly as active as I expected for such a grand-scale film, offering good clarity on the dialogue and giving the sweeping score a boost in the sides and rears, but when you expect things to kick in, the energy just wasn't there. This could be a screener issue, and will be re-evaluated with a final copy.
A hugely disappointing release from an extras point-of-view (supposedly Luhrmann hopes to do a blow-out special edition by the end of 2009), this disc features just two deleted scenes, for a total of less than three minutes of footage. In one, the rivalry between Fletcher and Drover intensifies, while the other shows more of the servants' feelings about their situation. They aren't game-changers, but they do mark slight changes from the finished film.
The Blu-Ray disc gets some featurettes, but if you look around on iTunes, you can download them for free.
The Bottom Line
There's no doubt that Baz Luhrmann's status as one of the most talented filmmakers working today is firmly in place following this successful attempt at epic filmmaking, as he slightly modernized the recipe for the old classics and created something fresh and original, while feeling comfortable and familiar. If only the DVD delivered the same goods. No matter the extras though, this is one for true film fans to luxuriate in.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.