•A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series takes you back to 2008 to look back on one of the best films you’ve never seen. Baz Lurhmann’s “Australia”, a sweeping throwback epic of old Hollywood.
Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann broke out in America with his punk rock take on “William Shakespeare’s: Romeo & Juliet” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. It failed at the box office but has taken on a semi life as a cult following. Six years later, Luhrmann gave us his second most successful film, the visual pyrotechnic musical “Moulin Rouge” with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and winning 2 for Best Art Direction and Best Costumes.
Let’s skip ahead to his most recent effort in 2001, when Luhrmann gave us his gloriously extravagant adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. It proved to be a successful run in theaters, making it his most successful and highest grossing film to date.
However the best film Baz Luhrmann made that you’ve probably never seen is his cinematic epic of old Hollywood. Luhrmann has always dreamed of making the Australian “Gone With the Wind” and he has. “Australia” is the sort of film that is categorized as a “sweeping romantic melodrama”. It’s as big and bold and unabashedly old-fashioned as anything since Titanic (at the time), and as with that film, you’ll revel in its sweep and grandiose scale.
Luhrmann mythologized his homeland, just as American directors like John Ford did with Westerns. Luhrmann channels filmmakers David Lean (Lawrence Of Arabia) and Victor Fleming (Gone With The Wind). Part western, part war movie and part epic romance. Arriving from England in pre-WWII, Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has come to sort out the troubles plaguing her sprawling Northern Australian cattle ranch, Faraway Downs. Finding her husband dead, corrupt caretakers, and an Aboriginal family with nowhere to turn to, Sarah seizes control of the land, much to the dismay of King Carney (Bryan Brown “Cocktail”), a rival cattle baron with eyes on purchasing Faraway Downs. Removing the insidious Fletcher (David Wenham) from the property, Sarah is left without help. A cattle herder named Drover (Hugh Jackman), a weathered man of the outback who comes to Sarah’s aid, whipping the ranch hands into shape, and finding a place for Nullah (Brandon Walters), a “half-caste” Aboriginal boy trying to avoid governmental detainment during the harsh “Stolen Generations” years. Driving the cattle across the ruthless landscape, romance quickly blossoms between Drover and Sarah, where they must face Fletcher’s unstoppable efforts to exact revenge. Including facing the bombing of Darwin, by the Japanese forces that had attacked Pearl Harbor only months earlier.
Filming began in spring 2007 and went on for nine months. Baz Luhrmann constantly re-shot scenes until he got things just the way he wanted. The project went well over budget, causing several scheduling problems. Even Australia itself was not very cooperative with filming on location. Filming was delayed for days because of bad weather and poor lighting. The largest and most expensive set was completely flooded when huge rain showers hit a part of the country that rarely gets rain.
Luhrmann was forced to secure more funding and make some compromises. The film’s one hundred million dollar budget, reportedly increased to more than one hundred fifty million dollars. But shooting of the final scenes moved from Darwin to Bowen because the local government provided an extra five hundred thousand dollars to film there. Luhrmann had several endings filmed. Including an ending that featured the death of Hugh Jackman’s character which was screened for a test audience, but proved unpopular. The production had spent several weeks in Kununurra, Western Australia, with temperatures as high as 109 degrees.
Luhrmann was determined is to keep international flavors out of the mix. This is an Aussie tale all the way to the bone, using pivotal moments of wartime ruin and racial hostility to help fatten the story beyond Drover and Sarah’s domesticated affair. In ways, the film belongs to Nullah, who represents the Aboriginal injustice, with Luhrmann using the boy to embody issues of unfettered bigotry and cultural divide. As Nullah, Brandon Walters gives one of those all-too-rare performances of pure youthful instinct, the character comes to be a screen presence forming a triangle of charisma and emotional intensity with Drover and Sarah that Luhrmann preserves beautifully over the film’s 2 hour and 45 minute running time.
“Australia” maybe a lengthy movie, but it’s not one to mope around. Watching the story embark on a blazing cattle drive, portion out Fletcher’s boiling rage, the bombing of Darwin or smoothly bring together Drover and Sarah as they bond in the outback maintains a strict pace to the movie. There’s a swarm of fluid emotions and action sequences to gorge on here, and with both Jackman and Kidman in top form in the lead roles, they effortlessly don the mantles of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable.
Nicole Kidman, who dislikes watching herself on screen, has said of her performance: “I can’t look at this movie and be proud of what I’ve done. It’s just impossible for me to connect to it emotionally at all”. However, she has expressed great enthusiasm about being part of the project, and enjoyed her co-star Hugh Jackman’s performance. Originally attached to star as Drover was Heath Ledger, but backed out to do “The Dark Knight”. Then Aussie actor Russell Crowe was attached as the lead during pre-production. Crowe left when 20th Century Fox executives tried to stay within budget by reducing his salary. Thankfully Crowe starred and directed in his own Australian epic, the terrific “Water Diviner”.
It’s a western of Aussie proportions for the first two acts, the narrative slips into war mode in the final section, when WWII washes up on Australian shores and divides our heroes. Here, Luhrmann opens his widescreen framing to the limits of multiplex dimension, staging bombing raids and chaos with the proper mix of hysteria and teary melodrama. Luhrmann takes “Australia” to dazzling heights of romantic sincerity and nerve-racking adventure. Luhrmann has always held a soft spot for love stories, but here he’s shooting for bigness to backdrop emotional simplicity. And I’ll be damned, but it works. Luhrmann, is known for his close up work with the camera, he pulls back here to show the magnificent landscape and the enormity of the cattle drive.
It’s crammed with exhilarating ravishing images, It’s all around a gorgeous film, with strong performances, and sweeping romantic melodrama. “Australia” is the kind of movie that reminds us the power of movies. After 11 years it remains a gloriously ambitious romantic epic and a truly memorable big-screen movie experience.