Australia is Baz Luhrmann’s best film. I wish this wasn’t a minority opinion, but it is. It’s actually not even a minority opinion, but actively contrary to the consensus: Out of Baz Luhrmann’s six films released as of August 2022, Australia has the lowest Metacritic, IMDb, and Letterboxd averages.
And I sort of get it. Australia is painfully long at 2 hours 45 minutes. It’s not a zippy film at all; it has an episodic structure that requires multiple narrative reboots. The most lurching of these is close to the hundred minute mark when we get what feels a bit like a “happily ever after.” It’s a jarring experience to expect rolling credits only to have a third of the movie left.
But I think much of what has been labeled “bad” in this film is really more “old fashioned.” A throwback to a half century before I was born. The gender and racial roles are a bit reductive, but it reads to me as an acknowledgment and critique of early 20th century Australia rather than an endorsement. The characters work strictly — though quite well, I’ll add — in broad strokes of recognizable types and well-trod arcs.
Playing dress-up as a classic Hollywood epic without a hint of subversion or irony does not make for cool cinema. But uncool can still be great, and I genuinely believe Australia is great.
This is the first of Luhrmann’s films to come after his retroactively-named “Red Curtain Trilogy,” Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! Each of those films engaged with their format and the artifice of cinema in some thoughtful way. Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! also leaned into a distinct visual style of hyperkinetic editing, zooms, color splashes, and trimmings.
His fourth film is something of an artistic reboot, though there’s still some shared DNA with his previous works. For starters, Luhrmann’s sense of visual splendor remains, as does his instinct for overwhelming kinetic motion that is more enrapturing than chaotic. But gone is his dollhouse aesthetic and any overbearing whimsy, which really tarnished Moulin Rouge! in particular for me.
Instead, we get a new kind of visual flair, one that feels a bit less gimmicky and more timeless. Luhrmann’s shot construction is peerless, as always. There are some lovely portrait shots that are almost mythic, like a great John Ford composition. He navigates open spaces and busy crowds with equal aplomb. There’s an abundance of beautiful long shots of a wide variety of Australian geography. (Luhrmann also leans into blue-orange contrast and color grading, on par with most blockbuster 2008 cinematography, perhaps a bit too much.)
Of course, Luhrmann is an Australian filmmaker. He has always cast a disproportionate number of Aussie actors and maintained a sensibility that feels slightly foreign to the typical Hollywood perspective (especially in the colorful, unfiltered banter of Strictly Ballroom, which is aggressively Australian). And with Australia The Film, he sets out with no less a grand ambition than to create a signature film for the nation, adapting some of its most important historical events of the 20th century.
Australia tells the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English widow who takes over her late husband’s cattle farm in the remote outback. She looks after half-Aboriginal boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), the narrator of the film, and an unnamed cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) who simply goes by “The Drover.” Ashley confronts a conspiracy to steal her farm, then the fallout of a bombing at the start of World War 2. (The transition between those two threads is the previously-mentioned plot lurch and reboot at the 100 minute mark.)
What I love about this film is its huge, immersive visual scope and shifting genre objectives: It starts a bit slowly as a tonally confused costume drama, but shines once it pivots to a western, romance, and war film. Honestly, “epic” feels like the most apt descriptor. Luhrmann shows so much versatility: The romance between Kidman and Jackman is passionate and thrumming, the cattle herding is heart-pumping, and the wartime carnage is terrifying, etc.
There’s also a thin veneer of camp coating the whole film. This is probably another reason for the consensus that the film is “bad,” as mild camp often comes across as naked corniness.
But, to my eyes, it’s clearly intentional that the old-fashioned script (easily the weakest part of the film) and classic-style production are over-the-top and melodramatic. And, to my eyes, the approach works: If you’re going to make a nearly-three-hour historical drama, at least go gaudy.
Over and over again, I kept thinking “that was an amazing, magical scene, and I can’t wait to watch it again.” You only have to say that so many times before you realize you are watching something special. Some of my absolute favorites include a stampede, a kiss in the rain, and an orphanage rescue, but there are maybe a dozen highlights.
One particularly special twist happens at about the halfway mark. We witness the beginning of rainy season, and the dusty beiges transform into vibrant, saturated colors. This is quite deliberately a reference to Judy Garland stepping into Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz, a film referenced multiple times throughout Australia. (A harmonica rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is a repeated motif that gets a heart-tugging payoff in the film’s closing minutes.)
There’s something invigorating and inspiring about watching a movie that takes big swings. I think we don’t value that enough as a movie-viewing public. Maybe it’s a bit messy, but it’s exactly the kind of delectable mess I love.
- Review Project: Baz Luhrmann Retrospective