I have an incredibly doughy spot for epic movies. Two of my top five all-time favorites are expansive David Lean history pieces (Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago). I’m such a sucker for BIG films that I even liked Legends of the Fall, which by most measures is one of the most horribly overwrought pieces of junk made in the last thirty years.
It was this love of the genre that made a viewing of Australia inevitable. I’m not a Baz Luhrman superfan, Hugh Jackman has never really impressed me and I think Nicole Kidman is the most frustrating actress of her generation. All of my instincts begged me to stay away, but I finally broke down and stuck the 2008 non-blockbuster, Australia, in the DVD player.
The most interesting part of the entire movie occurs prior to the first credit. Before the first notes of the swollen score, a warning appears on the screen. It states:
Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.
I may have seen other movies that featured this caution, but this is the first time I noticed it. Here’s the scoop:
Apparently, the Aboriginal people of Australia and the indigenous population of the Torres Straits have a series of bereavement and mourning rituals that include certain avoidance practices. When a member of the community passes away, they cease to use the name of the deceased for a prolonged period and avoid or destroy all photographs or recording in which the deceased appears.
It can be quite distressing for these folks to inadvertently encounter an image or recording of the departed during this period of mourning, known as “sorry business.”
Unfortunately, that brief warning was more interesting than the rest of the big, bloated flick.
I’ll spare you from a recitation of the plot. Basically, Australia is the story of a little native boy, a fish-out-of-water white woman who shows her toughness in the Outback, and a gruff, grizzled cattle drover set against the backdrop of World War II and the Japanese bombing of Australia.
It features everything you’d expect from a big, romantic epic. Sweeping scenery shots, an over-the-top score, a beautiful woman whose porcelain features belie her steely determination, the rough-and-tumble against-all-odds local love interest, big explosions, big weather and dramatic deaths. It also provides our white protagonists an opportunity to defy convention by landing on the right side of what was a horribly wrong policy regarding the native population during the period.
I can understand those who hate movies made from components like these. I really can. From a more objective perspective, I might even agree with them. However, I really do love this sort of thing. As such, I should adore Australia.
But I don’t.
Australia is cole slaw.
I like cabbage. I like salad dressing. I like little slivers of carrots. I like all of the stuff that goes into cole slaw. It should be my favorite food in the world. Yet, I hate it.
Every year, I try it again. I just can’t believe I don’t like it. It doesn’t make any sense. Every year, I discover that I hate it more than I did the year before.
That’s Australia. I should like it, but I don’t. Not even close.
With Australia, though, I think I know why I’m turned off. When people make cole slaw, they’re making it because they believe it will be a tasty side dish. They’re not making it as part of some culinary homage to the cole slaw of the past. Luhrman’s Australia is an intentionally exaggerated version of old Hollywood epics and its resulting insincerity steals any movie magic it may have otherwise possessed.
Australia is a 20th century Gone with the Wind for the southern hemisphere. It’s also a long reference to another 1939 Hollywood production, The Wizard of Oz. Whether Luhrman is trying to honor those films or to make some other point about their composition is meaningless to me. The movie tries too hard to channel its forefathers and plays like a collection of pieces that aren’t quite properly joined.
Remember, this is coming from a guy who actually enjoyed a movie featuring Anthony Hopkins in a bearskin coat wearing a chalkboard around his neck and slurring profanity. When you lose to Legends of the Fall, you really LOSE.