English Title: Australia

Country of Origin: Australia/USA

Studio: 20th Century Fox in association with Dune Entertainment LLC and Ingenious Film Partners

Director: Baz Luhrmann

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

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

Cinematographer: Mandy Walker

Editor: Dody Dorn, Michael McCusker

Runtime: 175 minutes

Genre: Wwestern/Melodrama/Historical Epic/War

Language: English

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

Year: 2008

Volume: Australasian


Set in the Northern Territory during the early years of World War II (1939–1941), Australia opens with the voice-over narration of Nullah, an Aboriginal boy, who tells the story of Lady Sarah Ashley, 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 to buy his cattle and return home. Upon her arrival in Darwin, she is greeted by The Drover, a rough, sunburnt man of action. Each takes an instant dislike 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 informs them he was killed by King George, 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 Nullah’s 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 that results in a stampede, which crushes Kipling Flynn, the station’s accountant and reformed alcoholic. A romantic attraction gradually develops between Sarah and The Drover. The group survives a life-threatening journey across the desert, guided by King George. Once in Darwin, Sarah and The Drover triumphantly herd the cattle straight down the pier, loading them onto the Army’s boats before Carney can load h


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’, which recalls the notion of Terra Nullius that 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’ (Langton 2008a). Her favourable review of the film was attacked by Germaine Greer, who argued that the film romanticizes a period of Australian history when Aboriginal workers were exploited by the northern cattle industry (Greer 2008). 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). 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, who is killed on the Turkish battlefield, 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 Awards for his performance in Blackfellas (James Ricketson, 1993). In this earlier film, Ngoombujarra’s character causes a diversion by pretending to shoot at police, similarly sacrificing himself so that his friends might escape. As he lies bleeding on the road, Ngoombujarra delivers his final line: ‘Free – free as a fucking bird’. This moment is echoed 15 years later in Magarri’s dying words as he watches the children climbing aboard the ship: ‘Drove ’em home, Drover’. Greer may legitimately protest that Luhrmann is reinforcing the stereotype of the sacrificial black man dying to save the white man here, but this overlooks the film’s subversion of expectations when King George survives his incarceration in a Darwin jail and emerges as a potent deus ex machina in the final moments.

Author of this review: Fincina Hopgood