Say what you will about American self-involvement, but when you’re all done saying it, allow me this: Americans be crushin’ on Australia. Like, for serious.
Look: We live in Texas, home of what might accurately be identified as the country’s most abundant natural reserve of diligent and unfettered nationalism — if it were indeed truly nationalistic in scope. Sure, a “real” Texan knows in his beef-swollen heart that the U.S. can beat the Nutella out of just about any other sovereign body on the globe (up to and including them pantywaists over at the United Nations `or rather, especially them`), but he knows with just as much certainty that Texas herself can do the same to every other state in the Union. At once. We’ll take a Connecticut Yankee — cardigan, marine-biology major, open-mindedness, and all — teach him to shotgun Lone Stars and run the triple option and lash out in blind, Pavlovian rage at the word “Oklahoma,” and return him to his doting mama the beer-gutted, Hank-lovin’ brawler who scrawled a flaming “TX > FRANCE” across the hood of her hybrid Miata in bluebonnet whiskey and armadillo blood. (We’ll spot ’er the “thank you.”)*
And yet, I’ve an inkling that if you were to trek deep in(to) the heart of Texas (Didja clap? You’re not a real Texan unless you clapped), sidle up to the biggest, baddest, Yellow-Rosiest Texan you could find, and start rattling off nationalities with the understanding that he should stop you when you get to one whose ass he isn’t sure he could flatten without spilling his Flirtini, you’d probably be able to cover the map without so much as a furrowed brow until you got to “Australian.” Because that’s what we know about Australians: They’re a big, beautiful, hardy people who knit their children onesies from buffalo steak and drink beers as big as your head and commune magically with animals and have occasionally beaten Michael Phelps at swimming. And we love them for it. We’ve heard the penal-colony thing; just makes ’em cooler. Americans left England because we were getting picked on. Australians got kicked out because they were just too effing bad-ass to stay. They’re the leather-jacket-wearing, smoking-at-13 cousins who scare us just slightly, but enthrall us completely. We’re Indiana Jones to England’s Bond, but Australia’s Mad Max. We’re Aerosmith, they’re AC/DC.
Witness: Cate Blanchett, Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Hugo Weaving, Geoffrey Rush, Eric Bana, Toni Collette, Judy Davis, Peter Finch. All born and/or raised Beyond Thunderdome, so to speak. And, yes, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. And Erroll Flynn, while we’re keeping score. Clearly, we’ve got a thing for those gorgeous, talented bastards. And yet, despite the Stateside artistic presence of such notable Aussie natives/residents as Peter Weir, Jane Campion, Bruce Beresford, George Miller, and Gillian Armstrong, it’s taken until now to get a high-profile, well-heeled attempt at the sort of broad-themed, sweeping historical romance the continent seems to demand. (Or, if there’s been one, I don’t know of it.)
So. Was it worth the wait?
Baz Luhrmann’s Australia — because that’s what we’ve been building to, if you hadn’t guessed — is just about everything its trailers suggest (and, in some ways, a bit more). Outsized, impressive, entertaining, and great to look at, it’s a movie that feels, in more than one sense, like a deliberate evocation of an earlier age. Of course, as such (and at 160-plus minutes `sounds longer than it feels**`), the film might need to catch some viewers in the right mood. From where I sat (happily, and next to my wife, naturally), though, it suited me just fine.
Setting his story between the World Wars, Luhrmann gives us Nicole Kidman as the far-as-I-can-figure-it fictional Lady Sarah Ashley, exquisitely attired British heiress to the dreamily named Faraway Downs ranch — and the appended cattle company — in Australia’s Northern Territory. Also fictional: Hugh Jackman’s armoire-chested cattle drover, Drover (yep, “Drover”), who finds himself in an oil-and-water partnership (and later, a sexy oil-and-water partnership) with the Lady Ashley, as the two undertake an all-but-impossible cattle drive to avoid the absorption of Faraway Downs by Google-scale (and you got it: fictional) beef magnate King Carney (Brown). Lending aid: other residents of Faraway, particularly noteworthy among which is our narrator, Nullah, a half-white, half-aboriginal (and wholly made-up) boy who, despite a powerful, eventually familial bond with Lady Ashley and Drover, expresses more than once (and via paraphrase, here) his confusion and pain at being a “half-caste”: “Me no white fella. Me no black fella, either. Me belong no one.”
Which brings us, not altogether gracelessly, to one of the more unexpected and lingering elements of Australia: its depiction of anti-aboriginal racism. Nullah, called a “creamy” because of his skin color, cannot go to movies or into town without fear of being picked up and shipped off to have the aborigine “bred out” of him; he has to hide in the ranch’s water tower like a freakin’ Animaniac whenever a suspicious car approaches — a practice that, over time, yields tragic results. Previously, my basic conception of Australian race relations could rather easily have been traced to my having repeatedly watched “Crocodile” Dundee II as a kid — I guess I figured that since Mick and the guys all got along, everybody else did, too.
Australia, finally, tells a sprawling, swashbuckling, almost operatic tale — or really, two or three — and does so in a manner as big as the land that inspired it. It’s grand, melodramatic, bathed in lavish music and production design, and, as a result, plays less like a product of the modern, realism-first aesthetic and more like a Down Under Gone With the Wind. (I haven’t seen it. I’m still sayin’ it. Or: It’s The English Patient lite, with more fire and explosions.) In other words, some subtlety and believability is sacrificed, but Luhrmann’s epic is huge (bigger’n France, even) in all the right places. •
* For the record, I love Texas.
** Due to a personal matter, I felt obliged to step out of the theater for an estimated 5-10 minutes near the picture’s beginning. I would contend that this had a minimal effect on my ability to review the film, but I apologize nonetheless to the filmmakers and to you, the reader, for it.