Australia is not a great romantic epic, but it is a good popcorn romantic epic. It isn’t a big, serious attempt to make us laugh and cry while changing the world – and sweeping the Oscars. It is a light and frivolous and silly big movie that does make us laugh and cry and then sends us out to face the world it has helped us forget – and it may even win an award or two.
John Updike once wrote, “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” He could have been describing director Baz Luhrmann. While reviewing Zack and Miri Make a Porno, I complained about director Kevin Smith’s inability to do anything interesting with his camera. Well, Smith’s Yin has its Yang in Luhrmann’s aversion to leaving his camera alone – the constant swooping and swirling is dizzying.
Luhrmann has been at it for a while. His first and still best movie is the little Australian gem Strictly Ballroom, a musical of delightful simplicity. Next came Romeo + Juliet and his head was already swelling, filled with elaborate visions. Both Romeo and Juliet were overwhelmed by his excesses. Luhrmann then completed his loose trilogy of neo-musical pop culture pastiche with Moulin Rouge, a film so over the top it took me three viewings to find a way to like it.
Australia is a return to his roots – Australia. It is also both a departure and more of the same. He has moved on from the musical genre and now given us his take on the western. Otherwise, his playful obsessions linger on, such as huge camera gestures, melodrama, loving homage to Hollywood movies, and lots of music. But, I’m not complaining. Those are things I loved about it.
Australia is filled with shots that couldn’t possibly have been filmed using a crane, or even a helicopter. You sit back and marvel at them and try to forget that, these days, they scream computer generation. The best sequence is a massive cattle stampede along the edge of an impossibly high cliff and a young boy standing alone trying to conjure enough magic to keep them all from plunging to their deaths. It’s genuinely stirring. It’s not for those like me who are deathly afraid of heights.
It is also a sequence you feel as well as watch. It’s one of the most heart-rending things I’ve seen lately. The young aboriginal boy – the movie’s narrator – is an endearing character and we can hardly keep our eyes open to experience his peril. We feel this scene and many others physically as well. When horses or cattle stampede in Australia, the theater shakes, our inner organs get rearranged. Theaters better test their subwoofers and make sure they survived.
A Luhrmann movie just wouldn’t be complete without nods to his Hollywood favorites or without music. Here, both are provided by frequent references to those two most durable of movies, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. I’m a sucker for any movie – and there have been a great many – that acknowledges those two classics. The song “Over the Rainbow” creates an especially delightful motif.
Australia’s 2½ hour running time felt a bit too long. Not everything worked – the first act slapstick moments of fish-out-of-water Nicole Kidman encountering local roughnecks springs to mind – and not every intended teary moment brought a tear to my eye. Not many do though, I may not be the best judge. But, if a movie aims to be an escape, I’m fine with that escape lasting as long as possible these days.