Wizards of Oz
Review by Vives Anunciacion
Inquirer Libre January 30, 2009
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
It reminded me of that old classic Gone with the Wind. It really did. Scarlett O’Hara, cowboys and lots of burning buildings. Not as good, but maybe just as huge. Australia is a big, bombastic throwback to grand ol’ Hollywood filmmaking, overflowing with everything Ozzie. If that’s a mouthful, wait till you see the rest of the movie. It’s 165 minutes long.
The most expensive movie ever made from Down Under is director Baz Luhrmann’s ambitious tribute to his beloved homeland, a tall tale that is both a sensational romance between an English aristocrat and a brutish cattle driver, and an over-the-top tour of Australia’s colorful past.
Film begins in 1939, the beginnings of World War II. Socialite Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from London to Darwin to salvage her failing marriage and sell the cattle ranch owned by her husband. Her travel to the Northern Territories is facilitated by cattle driver Drover (Hugh Jackman) but on her arrival she finds her husband murdered, and the ranch, called Faraway Downs, in ruins.
Urged by the magical mysterious boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), Lady Sarah decides to revive Faraway Downs and enlists the help of Drover to manage the ranch. Lady Sarah has taken a liking for Nullah, who is the illegitimate son of an Aboriginal mother and a Caucasian father and has been in the hiding from the authorities who forcibly take half-breeds like him (called the Stolen Generation) to an isolated island run by missionary priests.
The film is an Ozzie version of a country Western where the sophisticate learns the severe conditions of the outbacks. Lady Sarah becomes a full-fledged rancher, even as she falls into the charms of hunky Drover as they drive 1,500 head of cattle to the port of Darwin across barren desert and deadly terrain. Before they can even sell their beef, their story has its enemies, they are King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his henchmen led by Fletcher (David Wenham), who run the largest cattle ranches that side of the world. Of course Carney won’t let Sarah bite on his heels that easily.
Just when you think that part of the story gets finished, the Japs come bombing Darwin. There’s still another 30 to 40 minutes before the movie ends.
It is a stretched narrative, maybe sprawling but not epic, full of melodramatic flourishes but uncomplicated, as expansive as the terrain captured by Luhrmann’s sweeping vistas. Kidman and Jackman share comfortable chemistry, most of the time comical, and yet the romance is acceptable. Sarah’s maternal attachment to Nullah is one of the cores of the film, and Walters provides that necessary magic to make us understand why Sarah cares for him.
Visually excessive yet narratively shallow, it is no different from “old” films our generation calls simplistic and melodramatic. This is Luhrmann’s physicalization of the metaphor of Oz, the reason that other classic The Wizard of Oz pops into Australia’s branchy story every now and then. If only Australia ended soon after they returned home.
Last notes: curiously, the final musical notes as Australia fades to black are from Edward Elgar’s 1899 classic orchestration Enigma Variation #9, called “Nimrod,” referring to Elgar’s best friend Augustus Jaeger. Jaeger and Nimrod both mean “hunter.”
Even at 500 words, I still manage to miss mentioning a few points in the print version of the review. I must volunteer a few more observations.
The main reason I think that Australia is a throwback to old Hollywood is Kidman’s Lady Sarah. I believe Ms Kidman to be an intelligent and capable actress, and the impish, uncomfortable, singular-minded Sarah she puts onscreen can only be a reflection of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara or Katharine Hepburn’s Rose Sayer in The African Queen. Or any of the ladies from our old black-and-white Sampaguita or LVN pictures. It’s like that. Her Sarah is not entirely her own, half of it is dictated by Luhrmann’s tone. And it’s like that because the entire movie is like that – an old movie, but in gorgeous color.
I miss mentioning the other narrative of the film – Nullah’s struggle to find and assert his own identity, at the time other children like him are treated by the whites as aberrations of humanity that must be “corrected” and isolated from the rest of society. In the end, with the help of Sarah’s and Drover’s affections, Nullah embarks on his Walkabout. Newcomer Walters does his magical act more than just fine.
The first half of the film (right after they come back to Faraway Downs after driving the 1500 head of cattle to Darwin) is rousing cheesy romance, but still a romance. After that, the movie reverts to large doses of teledrama revenge storytelling, especially with Fletcher, performed by Wenham who feels unsure of how to tackle the role between caricature and character.
We often describe old film romances and cowboy adventures as “corny” or “melodramatic” or unsophisticated in today’s terms. Is Australia corny? Yes. Is it melodramatic? Absolutely. The same things can be said about Australia, because it is exacly that – an old-style film romance and cowboy adventure, with a little magic spice sprinkled inbetween. Seen in that perspective, Luhrmann was successful with his treatment. His grave excess was the long running time.