December 23, 2009

Review of Australia

I recently watched Australia, the 2008 epic romance film directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. It's relevant here for its take on the country's indigenous people and policies.

Australia's reviews were mostly mixed, with some accentuating the positive and some the negative.

Australia (2008 film)Critical reception

Early reviews in the Australian press were mixed to positive with the general consensus that Australia was a good but not great film.[38] Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that as of 29 November 2008, 52% of critics gave the film a positive write-up, based upon a sample of 126, with an average score of 5.8/10. The site reported that the consensus was that while the film features "lavish vistas" and "impeccable production," it suffers due to its "lack of originality" and "thinly-drawn characters."
That line sums up the movie nicely. In other words, I tend to agree with the negative reviews. A sampling:

(Un)Happy Cows: Milk, Australia, Quantum of Solace, Twilight

By Fernando F. CroceOz here is the land of a thousand CGI-adorned vistas, introduced to the Ken Russell-on-blow tempo of Moulin Rouge!: There's Nicole Kidman as a British lady traveling Down Under as WWII simmers in the horizon, Hugh Jackman as the studly drover who agrees to drive her cattle across the flatlands, and a half-caste aboriginal orphan (Brandon Walters) who becomes their surrogate exotic. The pace slackens for stampedes, betrayals and Snidely Whiplashes before Miss Priss and Faux-Gable realize they are meant for each other. Whoa, still got a lot left. There's the obligatory ball where the scruffy hero dons a white tux ("I mix with dingoes, not duchesses"), the boy's grandfather (David Gulpilil, from Walkabout) watching from the mountains, familial revelations, a half-assed critique of Australia's old racist laws and a sprawling Japanese blitzkrieg. You'd need Spielberg working in Indiana Jones mode to pull this off, and Luhrmann just piles quotation mark on top of quotation mark. All that's missing is an epilogue with a powder-dusted Kidman looking back at how horribly-scripted her life was, although Edna Ferber herself would probably look at the film's leaden romanticism and plead, "Less. Less."Review of “Australia”It is a huge film--in scale, scope, look and feel, and of course budget. It is also a huge disappointment, labouring under the weight of its own overly mannered style, and its ambition to somehow embody the spirit of a nation, the style of classic movie making, and the historical politics of race relations. At nearly three hours in length, the film required either a galloping storyline or the exploration of characters in real depth. We get neither--and the film’s simple linear plotting is devoid of suspense, telegraphing all its dramatic moments so clearly that we are simply waiting for the inevitable. And wait we must, as the cattle mustering Western storyline comes to a close, and the bombing of Darwin storyline takes over. We wait often, too, as moments of drama unfold theatrically in slow motion, accompanied by swelling music and expositional voice-over. It is laboured cinematic excess.

The people of the film--with the stunning exception of Nullah--are caricatures rather than characters, and offer us little emotional connection. Luhrmann’s deliberate directorial decision to take this melodramatic approach means the performances are exaggerated, Kidman thoroughly entertaining as the comic English lady abroad, but less convincing as she falls for Jackman’s rough but noble outcast stockman. The real charm and warmth in the film comes almost exclusively from the performance of the young Brandon Walters, whose natural ease serves to highlight the cartoon nature of those around him.

The film looks stunning, Mandy Walker’s cinematography of the outback a real highlight (and far superior to the CGI-enhanced sequences) but I suspect that, like Kangaroo in 1952, this wont be enough to thrill audiences or woo critics.
Australia (2008)

The Native aspects

When Australia came out, I covered it in a couple postings:

Aborigines stereotyped in Australia
Australia's "black fella magic"

Here are a few additional thoughts:

  • The boy Nullah is the movie's main Aboriginal character. In the cast, Aborigines are listed 6th, 7th, 8th, and 13th of the top 16 characters. Once again, white people are in charge of telling indigenous stories.

    For movies where Aborigines are at the center of the story and whites on the periphery, rather than the other way around, see the superior Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Tracker, and Walkabout.

  • The Aboriginal characters are generally reactive rather than proactive. They follow the lead of the white characters. Other than running away and hiding, no one is bold or independent enough to challenge the racist system.

  • Although the film talks about Australia's racial policies, one doesn't get a sense of how pervasive they were. Rather, they seem the work of a few bad men, and they're countered by the efforts of a few good people. The film doesn't indict the system as much as it could.

  • Consider Nullah the half-caste boy. His father is a villainous white man and his mother an Aboriginal servant on the ranch. How did she come to be in a position of servitude? Where are her people and why doesn't she rejoin them? Did the man rape her, or did she "acquiesce" to his advances because she lacked options? How does she feel when he struts around as if he practically owns her?

    Questions like this go unanswered in a film like Australia. It almost has a whiff of Song of the South, with its happy slaves, about it. The Aborigines don't whistle a happy tune, but they don't seem terribly upset about their plight either. None of them are brimming with the anger or hate one might feel in their positions.

  • Nullah gets a fair amount of lines, but I'm not sure his sing-song pidgin English is an accurate reflection of how Aborigines spoke. It seems exaggerated to me.

  • We get a few references to Aboriginal concepts: walkabouts, the Dreaming, the Rainbow Serpent. But these are mostly window dressing. We get no real sense of the depth or breadth of Aboriginal culture.

  • We do get a sense that Aborigines are spiritually connected to nature, but this connection is mostly used to do magic tricks. Nullah can sing to animals to make them do his bidding, and sing to humans to make them come to him. This must be an extremely superficial if not downright false presentation of Aboriginal beliefs. It's about like portraying Indian religions as nothing but a brotherhood of humans, bears, wolves, and eagles.

  • In conclusion, I'd say Australia is a sprawling mess of a movie with good intentions but mediocre results. Rob's rating: 6.0 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


    Kat said...

    Not re: "Australia", but I think that Smilla's Sense for Snow is missing from your film list. Although that made the decision of casting Julia Ormond as half-Inuit. So White English millionaire's daughter plays biracial Inuit with a happy childhood steeped in poverty... Way to go.

    Another one you missed: "Hank Williams First Nations".

    Kat said...

    I checked on imdb: The Inuit boy (Isaiah) in the movie is played by a Filipino... Only Smilla's mother and Isaiah's mother Juliane (Smilla's neighbor) are played by actual Inuits. I am not sure about the Inuit hunter role (portrayed by Ona Fletcher) or by the child actress who portrayed Ormond as a little girl (Ida Julie Andersen).

    I just found this website: Inuit Circumpolar Council. Quite interesting.

    Rob said...

    Thanks for the movie notes, but it would be better to e-mail me with them. This thread should be for comments on Australia only.