There has been a lot of hype about this movie, made by Baz Lurhmann for international audiences about our country. Featuring big international Aussie stars in Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, plus several other iconic Australian actors, it’s a massive Hollywood style production, a sweeping epic complete with special effects and magnificent scenery.
The title, however, doesn’t really tell you much. I confess when I first heard about this movie, I vaguely assumed it would be more documentary in style — although why/how Jackman and Kidman would be involved was a mystery. As it turns out, I was wrong. The movie in fact tells the story of an English aristocrat (Kidman) who in the early stages of WW2 travels out to her husband’s cattle station somewhere in the Northern Territory, and must overcome various hardships to survive and prosper.
On paper, the movie features all the required elements for an epic drama: a great love story, beautiful scenery, treacherous villains, the surmounting of insurmountable odds, the overcoming of personal prejudices and demons, the taking of the moral high ground etc. But somehow the movie doesn’t quite hang together. Although I enjoyed it, being in the mood to be entertained and possibly not having terribly high expectations, I came away feeling dissatisfied.
I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the problems lie in the script. Although the acting has been widely criticised — with the obvious exception of young Brandon Walters, who beautifully plays a half-aboriginal child — I’m inclined to think it’s because the actors had a bad script to work with. And the more I think about it, the more badly scripted it seems. Not even the greatest actors and movie-makers could overcome such a badly plotted story.
Fundamentally, the movie tries to cover too much ground. It unfolds disjointedly in two halves and almost feels as though it should be two separate stories.
The first half deals with Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) arriving at her husband’s cattle station to find that he’s been killed and the station manager, one Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), has been sabotaging the station to lower the price on behalf of local cattle baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown), who wants to buy it. After sacking Fletcher, who takes all the other station hands, Sarah has no-one to drove the cattle to sale in Darwin, except for the itinerant ‘drover’ (Jackman). So she, the drover and a motley crew, including young half-breed, Nullah, proceed to drove the herd themselves, harassed all the while by a vindictive Fletcher and his cronies, whose mission is to prevent their arrival, so that Carney gets the lucrative army contract instead.
So far, so good. Typical epic stuff. But . . . and there are some large buts . . . the opening is hammy and slapstick, with Kidman’s character completely ridiculous in her primness, and her transition to a capable woman of the outback is glossed over very quickly. There was so much scope to explore the development of her character during the drove, but it didn’t happen. Similarly, the relationship between her and drover doesn’t so much evolve as step-jump, leaving me completely unbelieving of their so-called ‘great love’. Meanwhile, the machinations of Fletcher provided the only conflict, making the drama feel contrived. It is really only the presence of Nullah, also the film’s narrator, whose mysterious and shaman-like abilities (and those of his aboriginal grandfather, King George) keep saving the day, that gives this section of the movie any heart and soul.
The movie then quickly transitions through a period of over a year, during which Sarah and the drover are more or less living together at the cattle station (except when he’s off droving), and Fletcher bumps off Carney and marries his daughter, thereby assuming the mantle of cattle baron.
The second half of the film deals with the Japanese bombing of Darwin and the infamous ‘stolen generation’ of half-aboriginal children. From the very beginning of the movie, we know that the authorities are after Nullah, who is the son of Daisy (one of the station’s aboriginal hands) and Fletcher himself, to send him off to a mission camp. Sarah manages to protect him from this, until ultimately Fletcher pulls some strings and has Nullah apprehended and taken away. Around the same time, Sarah and the drover have a massive fight, and he leaves for good. In his absence, Sarah heads for Darwin to try to retrieve Nullah, and thereby gets caught up in the war effort and the bombing of that city.
Of course it all ends ‘happily’, with Sarah, the drover and Nullah reunited as a family. The drover works through his personal demons and fear of commitment, and Nullah finally goes off on ‘walkabout’ with his grandfather. Sarah herself is unrecognisable from the prim woman in the first half of the movie, and demonstrates a great capacity for love of Nullah in particular in her attempts to retrieve him.
But what, ultimately, is this movie about? There’s just too much going on and it all ends up as a big mess. Each of the individual elements would have been a good story, but the effectiveness was diluted by the sheer number of themes. And the character of Fletcher is just too evil and vindictive and malicious and powerful to be real — although I must say that David Wenham plays such unpleasant characters marvellously well. His snide mantra of ‘pride isn’t power’ is just spine-tingling.
So there you have my lengthy dissection of the movie, Australia. It simply needed more work on the plot and script. I thought they could have launched into the second Nullah storyline straight after they reached Darwin with the first herd of cattle, which would have kept the action happening and integrated the story better. But the scenery is gorgeous and I thought the effects used in the bombing of Darwin were really well done. And as for young Brandon Walters, I am sure we’ll be seeing him again in a movie very soon indeed!