Lotta courage here. It took moxie, daring and dedication to produce a two-and-a-half hour film saga set in Australia which, very deliberately, has all the sentimentality, ideal romance, plainspoken heroism, fantasy ending and flavor of the old-timey Western. And one of its recurring themes is the music and even Judy Garland visuals from “The Wizard of Oz.” And now throw in the climax, the Japanese bombardment of Northern Australia on February 19, 1942.
But its appeal is as solid as gold. Film critic cynics will have a field day and young audiences will be impatient with a film that does not cater to modern short attention spans nor avoid sentimentality. Because of the way it is, it is saying that this is the way we were. I loved what it was trying to do and its salute to the movie values we once loved. The characters, especially in the supporting roles, are full-blooded.
The film makes no excuses. In order to spell out the characters, the human effort and the nature of men’s insatiable passion for acquisition and power, nothing short of a monumental screen time will do. It wastes no time and no space. This is the Outback, in which references are as big as the screen chooses to make them.
Director Baz Luhrmann has cannily reckoned that certain values in western civilization are universal and immutable. Given the calculated film styling, helped in no small part by a computer-constructed cattle stampede, you find yourself as taken up by the courageous, seemingly impossible tasks of the heroes as you are by the very human motivations that are fed by the heart.
The film begins its great saga in September, 1939. Hitler has invaded Poland. The prim and proper English aristocrat, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), has inherited property in Darwin, Northern Australia. Her long, long journey from the motherland will be motivated primarily by reports of her husband’s philandering. Once there, she is to find that he’s been murdered.
Indeed, this is rough cowboy country where a man is measured by his alcohol blood count. Lady Ashley has arrived at her rundown but vast estate, Faraway Downs. She being an uppity, perfectly elegant noblewoman of jaunty demeanor, she has already unbalanced the raucous inebriates at the saloon. But she fascinates the charming 9-year-old half-caste Aboriginal Nullah (Brandon Walters). Inevitably, he will carry the film.
Holding onto the estate will depend upon her driving 1,500 head of cattle to the port at Darwin. There, the Australian military is to purchase them. Due to an altercation involving Lady Ashley’s callous cattle driver Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) in the matter of his abuse of Nullah, not to say his having secretly run choice cattle over to a competitor’s range, she has fired him. He takes the crew with him, leaving her with no one to drive the herd.
To the rescue comes a handsome veteran driver, Drover (Hugh Jackman), a died-in-the-wool Aussie cowboy he-man. But he being quite friendly with the Agoriginals, he is not especially popular thereabouts. And now, lacking a crew, he’ll fall back on the more-than-willing Aboriginal house staff, Nullah and, of course, Lady Ashley who’s an ace horseman.
Aiming to sabotage the drive will be the cattle baron and political big boss at Darwin, King Carney (Bryan Brown), with whom Fletcher has taken employ.
The drive will be the adventure. Events will include a colossal stampede ignited by the vile Fletcher, an increasingly free-swinging Lady Ashley, a dress ball, and relations with the natives. Inevitably, in early February of 1942, there is the Japanese attack and Drove’s heroics in trying to rescue children from the offshore Mission Island. In the midst of it all will be the contentious romance between Lady Ashley and Drover.
Let us pause a moment to set forth the historical background of the film’s climax:
In the late 1930s, the Japanese, fueled by a national spirit which, under a conviction that they were destined by history to conquer and completely control all of the Pacific Ocean, in particular Manchuria, China and Southeast Asia, began executing their grand strategy. In Japan’s detailed plans, the intention was to attack and take possession, by late 1941, of all of the rich oil and mineral resources of the Malay Peninsula, Indochina, the Phillipines and Indonesia.
The one mighty force blocking their ambitions was the U.S.fleet in Hawaii. By 1941, fired by a desperation over the U.S.embargo which threatened to leave their entire oil supply gone within 18 months, Japan unleashed its Combined Fleet in a daredevil attack on Pearl Harbor.
Even as the U.S. naval base was under attack, the remainder of the Japanese navy and air force struck at Singapore, Indo-China and other ports. Of particular interest was the tropical North Australian city of Darwin which they attacked in fury two months after Pearl Harbor.
“Australia” deals with this in a flowing fury of military ruthlessness, in this case a terror attack on terrified innocents. This movie will not be greeted well in Japan.
The ending is, yes, very sentimental. But it’s a sentimentality that challenges our pseudo-sophisticated kneejerk reactions. This is quality stuff. There is little of which to complain except for a minor unjustifiably extended scene here and there.
We need more such unpretentious, honest movies. Go for it.
“Australia” (quality rating: 9 out of 10)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay: Stuart Beattie, Baz Lurhrmann, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown
Time: 2 hrs., 35 min.
Rating: PG-13 (violence, sensual scene, brief vulgarity) (2:35)