I have niggled and grumbled already about this, but mostly on the comments I attach to the posts I highlight on my picks from other blogs in Google Reader. Thomas has reacted viscerally to all the hype, and I share that to a degree. While it is silly either way to review a movie I haven’t seen, I can say that I would be prepared for its being a good cinematic experience and will probably see it at some time, either in the cinema soon, or later on DVD. The cinema will no doubt be the best way to see it.
At the same time, anything so blatantly hyped does tend to raise suspicion. Big, gorgeous, expensive, even popular or Box Office do not quality make, not in the rather Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sense that I still am old-fashioned enough to subscribe to. How Leavisite of me! In the 1930s Edgar Wallace, to stray into other arts, was far more popular than Scott Fitzgerald or D H Lawrence, but who reads Edgar Wallace now? Who reads Ethel M Dell now, even though her works were hugely popular in the 1920s and 30s, and she made a lot of money per annum from them? But they were crap… Not that reading crap is intrinsically evil…
David Stratton gives Australia 3.5 stars.
…Initially, this gets the director’s long-awaited epic, Australia, off to a shaky start. As the characters are introduced, there’s a forced jocularity and a theatricality with which some of the actors visibly struggle. Fortunately, at about the 20-minute mark, the film settles down into what it should have been from the start: a romantic melodrama set in 1939-41 against breathtaking backdrops and a homage to the golden age of Hollywood.
The director’s aims aren’t entirely frivolous, however; there’s a serious agenda, as revealed in the opening titles, which describe in frankly superficial terms, presumably with an eye to an uninitiated overseas audience, the meaning of the Stolen Generations…
With considerable help from computer-generated material, Luhrmann creates a genuinely spectacular saga with this often impressive film; a cattle stampede towards a precipice and a Japanese bombing attack on Darwin are among the highlights. Still, given the status of his distinguished collaborators on the film’s screenplay — Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan and Stuart Beattie — it’s surprising so many cliches have found their way into the story. Given Luhrmann’s fondness for old movies and popular songs, it’s not surprising he manages to make frequent reference to The Wizard of Oz (which was released in 1939) and its famous song, Over the Rainbow, unlikely as this channelling may seem at first.
Given the considerable budget supplied by 20th Century Fox, it’s no real surprise that all too often Australia seems aimed not at Australian audiences but at international, especially American, ones. Native flora and fauna are used in ways that once used to bring a chuckle or two in local cinemas and Australian slang is employed rather too insistently. The character of the all-powerful cattle baron, well played by a rascally Brown, is straight from any number of Hollywood westerns and the romance between the fish-out-of-water heroine and her dashing employee is also familiar from movie classics of the past.
Yet for all its flaws — and Australia is not the masterpiece we hoped it might be — the film is easy to take. This is partly because it looks so magnificent, partly because Luhrmann’s vision is so stimulating and partly because the actors are, for the most part, so engaging in their roles.
The supporting cast is a rollcall of Australian acting talent…
I would take that to mean it is worth seeing.
Dean Ashenden has a good article on the subject in The Weekend Australian.
Australia (2008) and The Overlanders (1946) are set in the same moment (Japanese invasion threatening), the same place (the far north) and the same milieu (among cattle). They have similar story-lines (romance and a cattle drive) and celebrate a remote, mythic landscape.
The Overlanders was by far the biggest Australian film of its time, an ambition Luhrmann seems to share for Australia. Both films are preoccupied with Australianness which, given the setting, crucially includes "us and the Aborigines". They might almost have been designed as a laboratory test: have our ways of depicting these things changed all that much in six decades?
The Overlanders is the work of British director Harry Watt. He was sent to Australia early in 1944 by Ealing Studios at the request of the Australian government. Canberra had in mind a film that would lift hearts in a country at war and show its allies a gallant little battler on the other side of the world.
Watt was soon smitten by the piercing light and otherworldly splendour of the north. When he heard that early in the war thousands of cattle had been driven across the continent to keep them out of Japanese hands, he had his time, place and story: exotic, yet emblematic of the kind of Australia and Australians he’d been hired to portray.
Except for one small blemish: the Aborigines. They could hardly be left out of such a film, but how to include them without subverting the message? The problem was particularly acute for Watt. He saw with the eyes of an outsider, a lefty, and a man who had made his name in social realist documentaries.
Watt opted to tell a simple story in a simple way. His film opens with a fiendish Japanese soldier looming above a map of Australia as a high-intensity voice-over declaims: "The vast herds of Australia must be saved!" The camera closes in on the isolated port of Wyndham, where we see quintessential Australian bloke Chips Rafferty as Dan, a drover who has decided to drove a big herd across country to safety in far-off Brisbane rather than shoot them…
The Overlanders expropriated the land in our imaginations as surely as Corky and Dan planned to do in reality. The premiere was several times interrupted by applause for its depiction of the glorious country, while the triumphant arrival of the drovers in Brisbane is an allegory of our just triumph over the Japanese. The Overlanders showed Australians that Australianness was in the land, our struggles with it, and our defence of it.
Luhrmann seems to have been drawn to The Overlanders idea of Australia by the film’s combination of the exotic and the familiar archetype, and he thereby inherited Watt’s problem, although in very different circumstances. Aboriginal people have long since refused the place given them by The Overlanders, and the story of their relations with Europeans, scarcely known in the 1940s, has been recovered with vivid fidelity. These transformations make Luhrmann’s task both easier and harder.
It’s not hard these days to bring Aboriginal characters to front of stage. But just as Watt in a racist Australia got stuck with being patronising, Luhrmann in a self-consciously post-racist Australia could easily be condescending too. Will his Aborigines be goodies, victims or exotica? Symbols of Australia’s uniqueness?
Telling the story of them and us, which apparently Luhrmann, to his credit, is keen to do, is harder. It’s a difficult story to tell in any circumstances because relationships between black and white were so complicated both in form and morality. It’s probably impossible to tell it faithfully in the way Luhrmann seems set to try, as a subplot to our story…
I have seen The Overlanders several times, and it is a good product for its time and place, even if arguably a British film, but it is also a museum piece now. Perhaps Lurhmann is between a rock and a hard place when he revisits that territory?
Just trivia: Simon H’s father knew Chips Rafferty quite well; I recall a fascinating conversation on the subject many years ago now…
As for Australia? Yes, I do think I will see it, and may even enjoy it at some levels at least. Just wish the hype machine hadn’t gone into overdrive quite as much.
- And speaking of possible parochialism, I am so glad we have had the sense to drop the Trivial Pursuit competition which was John Howard’s version of a citizenship test. No longer is knowing who Don Bradman is a measure of potential value as an Australian citizen, excellent as Bradman was. At the time I posted a few times, notably Government careers down path of superficial idiocy on citizenship test and Ninglun’s Dinkum Aussie test, mate!
- UPDATE: However, while rather more important (and justifiable) questions remain in the new form of the test, apparently, it is still to be exclusively in English, which is open to the same objections I and others raised last year.