Sunday, December 28, 2008

Epic Australia

Finally prised myself off the sofa today and put aside the junk food and the remote control to go and see Australia. I will admit, this wasn't my first choice (that would have been Yes Man cos I'm reading the book) but I had to go and see something non-comedic because I was going with my sister who has a chest infection and laughter of any sort pre-empts a scary coughing fit.

However, I was glad I saw Australia in the end as it was highly entertaining despite its length (165 minutes) and was full of gorgeous imagery. Seriously - if it emerges that Baz Luhrman was paid by the Australian government to make this film as tourism propaganda, I will have no trouble believing it. The country has never looked more inviting.

The film has epic written all over it. Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman play parts that you can just imagine stars like Clark Gable and Ingrid Bergman pulling off. She's Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat who comes to Australia in 1939 to find out if her husband Maitland has managed to bankrupt the remote cattle station he's been running with her money. Jackman is The Drover, the rough cowboy her husband pays to pick her up in Darwin. The two characters meet and predictably hate each other on sight. The Drover drives her to Faraway Downs, the cattle station in question, only to find that Maitland has already been murdered. The most likely suspect is local Aboriginal shaman King George, whose mixed-race grandson Nullah lives on the station.

Sarah, who cannot have children, and the orphaned boy soon form a bond and she decides to stay on the farm and make a go of the business. But she faces two obstacles: the 1,500 cattle must be brought to Darwin to be sold and cattle magnate King Carney (Bryan Brown) is determined to stop her and maintain his monopoly of the beef market.

The first half of the film, which sees Sarah engaging The Drover's services in order to drive the cattle to Darwin across an unforgiving landscape and against incredible odds, is brilliantly done and plays out like a true Australian Western. The finale, which takes place in World War II-era Darwin, is also involving and effective. I'd argue that the part in the middle sags badly and that this is where scenes could definitely have been cut. The film's other main problem are the villains, in particular Carney's henchman Fletcher (David Wenham). They are simply moustache-twirling stock baddies who could have been fleshed out a lot more.

But the good outweighs the bad - Nicole Kidman is better than I've seen her in ages and she is matched by Hugh Jackman who is perfect as the macho hero. Brandon Walters is outstanding in his debut role as Nullah and steals every scene he is in. Overshadowing the storyline is the Australian government's horrifying policy of taking mixed-race Aboriginal children away from their families and placing them in church care. Both the opening and closing subtitles refer to this atrocity and it is this that remains in your mind after seeing the film - that and the incredible beauty that is Australia.

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