The shining accomplishments and egregious errors of Baz Luhrmann's latest epic historical romance can be summed up by its gargantuan, impossibly ambitious title.
Unlike any other film from 2008, iAustralia/i attempts to tackle a continent's worth of themes and concepts that only renowned filmmakers like David Lean and Victor Fleming have ever aspired to achieve. History, warfare, class struggles and sweeping romance take up every frame of Lurhmann's latest project, all of which is shot with direct homages to iLawrence of Arabia/i, iGone with the Wind/i, iThe Wizard of Oz/i, iRed River/i and just about any other mainstream Hollywood epic one can think of. It's a brave and impressive undertaking from a gifted and eclectic director; a film filled with joy, melodrama and an undeniable passion for cinema. Unfortunately, it is also fragmented, kitschy and, in the end, too massive and disjointed an endeavor to equal the great, sprawling epics of the past.
Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, iAustralia/i begins just before the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942. Kidman plays a British widow named Sarah Ashley who is forced to travel down under to revive Faraway Downs, a cattle station that her deceased husband left in shambles. She is accompanied by an Australian hunk known only as The Drover (Jackman), and together they must fight off tough local competition in order to bring the decrepit establishment back to life.
Just like iStrictly Ballroom/i, iRomeo + Juliet/i and iMoulin Rouge!/i, iAustralia/i starts off in pure Lurhmann camp mode. Sarah Ashley is presented as a caricature of British formality and her startling introduction to the tough, kill-or-be-killed lifestyle of Darwin is ridiculously over-the-top, filled with one slapstick clicheacute; after the next. Her luggage of lingerie is tossed around by a gang of Aussie thugs, a kangaroo is shot right before her eyes and Jackman's no-nonsense Drover offends her with his frank and unsympathetic demeanor.
If you are not a fan of Lurhmann's last three films and are unwilling or unable to find the first hour of iAustralia/i's quirky opening enjoyable, do not waste your time with the rest of the movie. Lurhmann shoots through a relentlessly hyper-stylized lens that in no way resembles the familiar format of reality. However, for those of us who find the director's fast-paced, Brechtian approach to cinema inviting and big-hearted, Australia, at least for its first two hours, will not disappoint.
Sarah Ashley and the Drover predictably fall for one another and, in an extended sequence that follows them and a massive herd of cattle across the empty dunes of the outback, Lurhmann shows his knack for melodrama and romance to conjure up a love story that, like iMoulin Rouge!/i, embraces and eventually transcends the one-dimensionality of the film's beginning. Kidman goes from an uptight aristocrat to a tanned and untamed adventuress with the ease and confidence of a classic Hollywood actress (think Vivien Leigh in iWind/i) while Jackman, as the Drover, has a harder time finding depth and a sufficient emotional arch within his alpha male character.
Nevertheless, their romance works, in part because of the introduction of a young aboriginal orphan named Nullah (Brandon Walters) who, in an attempt to avoid the local authorities, brings the two lovers closer together as his surrogate parents.
The character Nullah brings out the sordid history of Australia's "stolen generation", a term used to describe thousands of aboriginal children who were taken from their homeland and "made pure" by the predominantly white and Christian government of Australia up until the early 1970s.
Lurhmann, on top of creating a love story and an Outback western, attempts to tackle this particularly unpleasant piece of Australian history. The result, though admirable, is somewhat preachy and condescending. While Walters does a lovely job at projecting the vulnerability of Nullah, and while his character gives plenty for Kidman and Jackman to work with, Lurhmann uses him and the rest of the aboriginals mainly to moralize about the obvious evils of racism rather than fully integrate them into the emotional backbone of the film. This is especially true with the character of Nullah's grandfather, King George, a singing and dancing witch doctor whose only discernible character trait comes from his sporadic late night chants in the depth of Faraway Down's mountains.
Lurhmann's last-minute inclusion of the Darwin bombings in the final 40 minutes of the film also feels tagged on and cheap. Nothing quite prepares us for the Pearl Harbor-esque attack in Australia because, up to this point, the film's storyline hardly foreshadows its sudden arrival. The only purpose it serves is to momentarily pull the lovers apart, and it is in this jarring plot development that iAustralia/i suddenly plunges into shamelessly manipulative kitsch.
That said, iAustralia/i does not end as a failure. Though the structure of the film falls apart by the end, it's overall ambition is too great and its execution too creative to be labeled as unsuccessful.
Baz Lurhmann may be a director who occasionally throws too much paint onto his canvas, but no one can argue that he doesn't have vision.
iAustralia/i will not make the box-office bucks 20th Century Fox was hoping for, but like iMoulin Rouge!/i's reinvention of the movie musical, iAustralia/i may very well inspire filmmakers to tackle the old-fashioned historical epic once again. Next time, let's hope they do it with greater clarity and a stronger narrative drive.