“Australia” or, Baz Luhrman, What Are You Doing With Your Life?

I like to consider myself a bit of an expert when it comes to Baz Luhrman movies. I took a class a few years ago which analyzed his Red Curtain Trilogy and, as I mentioned in my post about Moulin Rouge, I’ve seen that movie once or twice. So, since I am so well acquainted with the ins and outs of his style, I have certain expectations when I sit down to watch one of his movies. I expect heightened emotion. I expect spectacle. I expect to be impressed by the harmony with which his films hum along, the deftness with which everything works and falls into place. The one thing I never, ever expect from a Baz Luhrman movie is to be bored, and so it is surprising that it is here, and here alone, that Australia excels.

The best thing I can say about this film is that it is ambitious. In scope, plot, and setting, it does not hold back. Every shot is aching with Luhrman’s desperation to create an epic masterpiece. Unfortunately, the movie would have benefited enourmously had Luhrman at some point stopped focusing on the “epic masterpiece” part of the movie and just focused on the “movie” part of the movie, the part with characters who have depth and dialogue that isn’t made of wood and things happening that we actually care about. Luhrman spends so much time zooming over the (admittedly breathtaking) Australian landscape that the scenes with actual people feel like a chore. Fine, one can almost hear the director mutter. I’ll put in your stupid characters and plots, but I won’t like it. Hey, look, cliffs!

The premise of the movie – Australian cattle drives with a backdrop of British imperialism and World War II – could have been fascinating. All right, I have no prior personal connection to this scenario, but a good  movie would have given me something to connect to, would have reached out to me. I mean, the premise is certainly compelling enough to capture my imagination. But this movie didn’t try at all to connect with its audience; it was too caught up indulging itself and sinking farther and farther away from a point of connection. This tendency to indulge itself is also what made the movie so tedious to watch – every time I though the movie was over, it turned out there was still at least an hour left. The plot has no purpose, meandering along until someone decided the movie was long enough and everyone could go home.

I think a large part of the problem is that Baz Luhrman is most comfortable doing romances. His first three movies were essentially romances with fairly stock characters. What set them apart was everything else about the films – the cinematography, the artistry, the cinematic language used. Romeo and Juliet has been done a million times in a million different ways; everyone knows the story, the characters, and how it ends. In Luhrman’s version, that was the least important facet of the movie. His movie was more about the auteur style, the exploration of what, exactly, it would mean to set Shakespeare’s tragedy in the present day, maintain his language, and interpret through Luhrman’s fever dream of a style. The clichés were not only irrelevant; they were necessary to give the audience some solid ground from which to experience the film.

Australia has perfectly competent romantic leads in Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman (incidentally, part of my disappointment stems from the fact that two of the main players from my favorite movie of all time teamed up once more, and this is what we got from that). However, it doesn’t do anything more with them, leaving them stranded at “romantic lead.” Luhrman’s other films benefited from the extreme environment he dropped the stories into; one senses that he tried but failed to replicate this with his love letter to the Australian outback – sorry, but this in no way measures up to the hallucinatory experience that was Moulin Rouge. More than that, though, the characters in his other films, while types, were not one-note. They had nuance, depth. Here, Nicole Kidman gets to play “uptight imperialist who unwinds upon leaving the city and starting a family” and Hugh Jackman gets to play “rebel loner who softens upon discovering the love of a woman.” This story has been played out a million times. Again, this need not have necessarily been a bad thing – the movie could have done something different with the environment or given the characters something, anything, to twist them a bit. But it didn’t, and we get to spend 2 and 1/2 hours watching Kidman and Jackman plod through their predetermined path.

Look, this isn’t a terrible movie, and if you ever have 150 minutes to kill, I would suggest watching it, if only so you can keep up with snobs at cocktail parties discussing the rise and fall of Baz Luhrman. I was disappointed, because I know that everyone involved with this film is capable of so much more. Luhrman excels in wild, insane, demented cinematic LSD trips; in trying to stay a little closer to reality, he stumbled and fell. Maybe, if the stars had aligned a little better, he could have pulled it off, but I have my doubts in that area. Luhrman just cannot do reality. Incidentally, if his version of The Great Gatsby ever gets off the ground, I will very likely be avoiding it like I would the unholy spawn of Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black (topical reference!)

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