Baz Luhrmann's $130 million epic Australia (2008) is possibly the single biggest event to ever come out of that continent--possibly the single biggest event that ever will come out of that continent for decades, if this worldwide economic meltdown has anything to say about it.
I'm not kidding about the size--Luhrmann (who probably snowed his investors with promises that the project will be another Moulin Rouge (2001)) had to shift gears on his long-awaited Alexander the Great project when Oliver Stone pre-empted him with an Alexander of his own (yet another box-office flop, incidentally); Luhrmann decided to set his next project in his own home country, presumably for the ease and convenience, then proceeded to escalate the production beyond any hope of finishing easily and conveniently. Entire sets--including parts of the town of Darwin circa the '30s and '40s--were constructed from scratch, the Darwin sets subsequently bombed; not one but two herds of cattle were driven over harsh Aussie terrain, raced through the built-up towns, and into holding pens; a grand ball was staged, with star Nicole Kidman at its center, and star Hugh Jackman as gentleman gatecrasher.
What to make of such follies? That size doesn't matter? The filmmakers grew too big for their britches? The bigger they are, the harder they fall? I actually don't mind multimillion dollar productions, if the director had a vision crazy enough and daring enough to justify the craziness of the cost--think D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) with its gargantuan Babylonian sets, or Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) with its three full-sized movie screens flashing at once; think Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) with its candlelit photography and Napoleonic battle sequences, or Bernardo Bertolucci's Novecento, made the following year, with its delirious tracking shots taking in huge swathes of the Italian countryside, or even Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984) with its ringing phone linking together a fractured narrative structure, spun out from an opium pipe and spanning forty years. For these artists, it's not just the money, the money was just a means; it's the vision, that demented whatever-it-is they were trying to achieve (a multiple-thread chronicle of hatred throughout history; a biography of a great and controversial Frenchman; an outsized adaptation of a minor novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; a comic-book history of Italian Socialism, through World War 2; a hallucinatory dream of Jewish gangsters in Prohibition America) come hell or high water.
Certainly Luhrmann blew a comparable amount of money (adjusted for inflation) if not more for his picture, but for what? Cattle barons plotting to steal the deed to a ranch (wasn't that story old when color was invented)? The high-class lady that rides into town and falls for the rugged cowboy? The young orphan who becomes a beloved sidekick and adopted son? All small-minded, uncomplicated ideas, undeserving of a lavish production of this scale. To compensate for the puniness of his vision, Luhrmann heavily quotes not only from Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) and Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971) but also, tellingly, from Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor (2001), another recent epic that employs modern digital effects to present hoary Hollywood conventions. He basically has the heart of a little boy drunk on movies--but he better do something soon; it's starting to smell funky, floating in its formaldehyde jar.
And he better do something about his directorial "voice." Early in his career this consisted of hyperkinetic camera moves, the nervous editing rhythm of a Tourette's patient, and a color scheme that shrieked for attention. Strictly Ballroom (1992) was a charming dance movie (too bad an elderly Spaniard had to show Luhrmann and the entire film up simply by striking a pose--showing us for a brief, magnetic moment the inimitable quality of a man confident enough to stand absolutely still). His 2001 movie Moulin Rouge was basically Verdi's La Traviata lobotomized and tarted up and swollen into a hundred-and-twenty-seven-minute music video. I confess to being partial to his Romeo + Juliet (1996)--compared to Franco Zefferelli's sticky travesty of an adaptation, Luhrmann's looks like a masterpiece (though again with the music-video style--does he have ADD or something?). In Australia he's finally slowed camera and cutting down, unfortunately to the point of being soporific (Luhrmann, it must be said, rarely does things in halves) and hideously conventional: high-angled widescreen shots of the Aussie landscape; giant two-shots of lovers dancing; long tracking shots of the cattle running down Darwinian streets. This is stuff David Lean mastered back in the '60s, only with genuine grandeur (think of the assault on Aqaba in Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962)); Luhrmann, I suppose, is trying for a kind of secondhand, second-rate Lean.
Australia is cast mainly for the faces, not for anything as subtle as an actual character--look closely and you can spot the hairy dude from the X-Men movies, (the one with straight razors for fingernails), and Kidman (who's pretty enough, and actually quite good when asked to perform in a real film (Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001) comes to mind), and then there's the usual cast of thousands of aborigines, standing in the background for local color. I suppose I'm not being fair, three faces do stand out--Brandon Walters as the aboriginal child is a charismatic cutie, and an entire feature focusing on his story as one of the "Stolen Generation" (tribal children taken from their parents with the intention of having them civilized) would have been fine by me (but I forget, it's been done--Philip Nonce's excellent Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)). David Galileo as the aboriginal "King George" is a wonderful camera subject, with his wide smile, gentle eyes, and mysterious access to a world miles beyond this one.
Then there's Bryan Brown, whose lopsided, quintessentially Aussie grin practically defines star power down under. Figures that Brown would take an essentially thin role (dashing but ruthless but likeable millionaire entrepreneur who plays rival to Ms. Kidman's ingénue wife) and leave such an unforgettable impression in his brief screen time. While Brown is in the picture, Australia seems to threaten to develop into something actually interesting: when he exits it's just an oversized, overextended, overproduced studio backlot.
First published in Businessworld, 1.30.09