Australia

English Title: Australia

Country of Origin: Australia/USA

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Producer(s): Baz Luhrmann, G. Mac Brown, Catherine Knapman

Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan

Cinematographer: Mandy Walker

Art Director: Ian Gracie, Karen Murphy

Editor: Dody Dorn, Michael McCusker

Runtime: 175 minutes

Genre: Western/War/Melodrama/Historical Epic

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown, David Wenham, David Gulpilil

Year: 2008

Volume: Australasian

Other Information:

Production Design: Catherine Martin

 

Further Reading


Synopsis:

Set in the Northern Territory during the early years of World War II (1939-1941), Australia opens with the voice-over narration of Nullah (Brandon Walters), an Aboriginal boy, who tells the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a formal, uptight caricature of the British aristocracy. Sarah travels from Mother England to the Northern Territory to confront her husband, who has long been absent from home while tending his cattle station, Faraway Downs. Sarah intends to convince her husband to accept an offer from King Carney (Bryan Brown) to buy his cattle and return home. Upon her arrival in Darwin, she is greeted by The Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rough, sunburnt man of action. Each takes an instant disliking to the other, although Sarah mistakenly assumes that The Drover is attracted to her. When they reach Faraway Downs, they discover that Sarah’s husband has been killed by a spear; the station manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) informs them he was killed by King George (David Gulipilil), an Aboriginal leader (and Nullah’s grandfather) known for his hatred of the white man. (It is later revealed that it was in fact Fletcher who killer Sarah’s husband.) Sarah is visited that night by Nullah, who explains that Fletcher was secretly working for their competitor, King Carney; he also tells Sarah that Fletcher sleeps with and beats his mother. The implication is that Fletcher is in fact Nullah’s biological father.

 

The childless Sarah is immediately charmed by Nullah and seized by a desire to protect him. She dismisses Fletcher and resolves to continue with her husband’s plans to drove his cattle to Darwin and sell the herd to the Army, rather than accept Carney’s under-priced offer and allow him to gain a monopoly in the region. Although they are now understaffed with the departure of Fletcher and his men, The Drover reluctantly agrees to lead the drove, with a motley crew of riders including Sarah, in return for the station’s prize stallion. Before their departure, Sergeant Callahan visits the station looking for Nullah (during this time, the police were charged with removing half-caste Aboriginal children from their families, so that they might be raised as ‘white’ by church missionaries). To evade capture, Nullah hides in the water tank, but his mother, Daisy, tragically drowns. Confessing that she is not very good with children, Sarah awkwardly comforts the grieving Nullah by singing a few lines of “Somwhere over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) – and Nullah is entranced.

 

During the drove, the group encounter various acts of sabotage by Fletcher, including a fire


Critique:

As the lengthy synopsis suggests, there is more than one story in Australia, and indeed it feels like more than one film. The first half is devoted to saving Faraway Downs from King Carney’s empire, and the extended droving sequences – a combination of location photography and special effects – culminate in the impressive set piece of the cattle drive down the Darwin pier. With the consummation of the romance between Sarah and The Drover following the society ball, this seems like the “natural” place for the film to end. But Luhrmann pushes on to tell the story of “what happened next” to Sarah and The Drover, and this is where the film overstays its welcome. There is a shift in genre and visual tone as we move from the western to the war film, and the deep, rich browns and reds of the outback are replaced by the grey monochrome of a city under siege. Our three protagonists are separated for much of this second half, and the film is weaker for it. Much of the film’s appeal lies in the interplay between The Drover and Sarah; their relationship is an archetypal clash of opposites, complemented by the impish presence of Nullah, and there is a spark in Kidman and Jackman’s playing that is lacking when the two are apart.

 

What ties this fragmented narrative together, at least thematically, is the story of the stolen generations, which marks Australia as a particularly important film – even if it is a flawed one – in Australian cinema “after Mabo”. Nullah’s name seems a subtle reference to the doctrine of Terra Nullius that was overthrown by the High Court in the famous land rights case fought by Aboriginal leader Eddie Mabo; as Nullah explains in his opening monologue, “I belong no one”, recalling the notion of Terra Nullius which perniciously claimed that Australia “belonged to no one” at the time of the British invasion in 1788. As Australian film scholars Felicity Collins and Therese Davis have argued, Australian cinema since 1992 has registered in various ways the impact of the High Court’s decision upon our national identity and our relationship with the land. Released in the year when the Prime Minister of Australia offered a formal apology to the members of the stolen generations, Australia represents a conscious, heartfelt engagement on the part of white Australians with our history and a desire to envisage reconciliation on screen.

 

Luhrmann’s grandiose, hyperbolic vision was embraced by Indigenous Studies professor Marcia Langton for daring to give Australians “a new past – a myth of national origin” that combines fantasy with historical accuracy: “Luhrmann depicts with satirical sharpness the racial caste system of that time”.[i] Her favourable review of the film was attacked by Germaine Greer, who argued that the film romanticises a period of Australian history when Aboriginal workers were exploited by the northern cattle industry.[ii] The key point of tension between these two views relates to the film’s use of history – Greer sees it as Luhrmann’s obligation to represent past events in a stark, realist manner, faithful to the historical record, but Langton’s view is more forward-looking, advocating Luhrmann’s “alternative history” as a means to effect reconciliation through storytelling. Langton is under no illusion that this is a film, not a history book; one that expresses a hopeful vision for our future as well as telling stories of our past.

 

Cinematically, in terms of the film’s style rather than its politics, Luhrmann spoke about the influence of Hollywood epics such as Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939).[iii] But the legacy of Australian cinema is equally evident in Australia’s sweeping helicopter shots of the Northern Territory’s magisterial landscape, which recall Gary Hansen’s cinematography in We of the Never Never (Igor Auzins, 1982). The scene on Mission Island where Magarri single-handedly takes on the Japanese soldiers is particularly striking in relation to the history of Australian film: as he runs along the beachfront, Magarri is shot and falls down in a manner that recalls the stunning final frame of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). Like the sacrificial figure of Archy (Mark Lee) who is killed on the Turkish warfront, Magarri runs from left to right of frame and as the bullet hits, his arms are raised and his back arches. Weir’s emblematic image of self-sacrifice in wartime is reclaimed by Luhrmann as a testimony to brotherhood between black and white Australia. This scene has further intertextual resonance in the casting of Ngoombujarra, who earlier in his career won Best Supporting Actor at the AFI

Review by Fincina Hopgood

Author of this review: Ben Goldsmith

Peer reviewer: Jennifer Schivas