Friday, November 28, 2008

From the Archive: "Australia" Film Review

Film Rating: A

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Australia.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
Originally published November 28th, 2008

The movie is called Australia, and yet no character at any point in the picture says the sentence “Let’s put another shrimp on the barbie!”  Sure, you’ll here the word “Crikey” enough, and there are kangaroos and dingos aplenty, but if the movie is called Australia, I would think the audience should hear that classic Paul Hogan quote at least once.  Of course, that might be the point of the film; the lack of the classic Australian stereotypes the rest of the world defines the country with forces native Aussie Baz Luhrmann to illustrate the nation in a much more realistic manner.  In Luhrmann’s film, we see the real Australia at a crucial, tragic point in history, in more ways then one.  The audience is treated not only to a terrifying, enveloping recreation of the Japanese bombing of Darwin, but also to a first-hand account of the equally terrifying treatment of the aboriginal tribes of Australia.  Oh, and there’s an epic love story in there too.

Australia is a film that has everything in it, and I honestly have no idea how else to phrase that.  It boasts a terrific, epic story with great performances.  It features gorgeous, breathtaking cinematography.  The musical score, built around the “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” motif from Wizard of Oz, is powerful enough on its own to bring a tear to your eye, and is even more amazing when put in context with the film.  But when I say that Australia “has everything in it,” I’m talking about more than that initial list of praise.  The film has an epic romance; it has nail-biting action; it deals with complex themes of equality; it has lots and lots of cattle; there’s a healthy dose of aboriginal culture, which is fascinating; there’s history; there’s fiction; there are happy moments and sad moments, and nearly everything in between.

The technical term for Australia would be an “epic,” but the word itself does not sum the film up appropriately.  Australia is in the same genre as films like Gone With the Wind; films from the thirties and forties that ran long in length, but had huge, sweeping sagas for stories that encompassed a long span of time.  That’s an appropriate way to describe Australia, and as an homage to those classic films, it succeeds perfectly, while still showcasing some modern filmmaking styles.  Simply put, a film like Australia doesn’t come along often, because it belongs to a dead genre. 

The film’s epic storytelling style means that it has a few separate plots from beginning to end, but the premise of the film is this: Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat, comes to visit her husband’s Australian ranch, Faraway Downs.  She’s greeted in Australia by a rugged cattle driver (Hugh Jackman) whose name is never revealed, but is called Drover throughout the film.  They travel to Faraway Downs to find her husband murdered and the ranch being cared for by the villainous Fletcher, who works for a cattle baron that has a virtual monopoly on the land.  Together, Sarah and Drover are given the challenge of restoring the ranch to its original glory.

I could rewrite that paragraph a million times, but I know I would never be able to tell anything more than the film’s general premise without spending pages and pages describing the actual plot.  The film is a saga, and after the first act’s journey, which involves Sarah and Drover moving their cattle to Darwin, the film moves into other territory, such as the Japanese bombing of Darwin and harsh treatment of aboriginals.  One of the focal points of the film is the young aboriginal boy Sarah and Drover care for, the family the three eventually come to form, and the struggles to keep that family together, which is one of the most touching, heart-tugging cinematic stories of the year.

The way Luhrmann seamlessly weaves his romance story into the backdrop of WWII Australia is simply amazing; it feels as though these characters truly existed at the time (similar to how the romance linked into history in Titanic, though Australia pulls it off even more effectively).  History tells us what will happen to the city of Darwin, but viewers know nothing about the fates of the characters, and Australia had me practically chanting “please have a happy ending.”  That’s the mark of well-done characterization and effective suspense, both of which Luhrmann has mastered for the film.

The acting is phenomenal across the board, and while no performance will likely garner an Oscar nod, they uniformly serve to bring the characters and the saga to life.  Nicole Kidman gives the richest performance I’ve ever seen from her, and while her character isn’t necessarily as interesting as some other players in the script, she absolutely nails the character’s transformation from aristocrat to motherly rancher.  Hugh Jackman, putting his cool native Aussie accent on display, is terrific.  He can nail the badass elements of Drover, but also does a great job in the smaller, more emotional scenes.  A scene, late in the film, where he scolds a bartender for using ethnic slurs, shows off his true acting prowess, and is the kind of scene that just might garner him an acting nomination somewhere down the line.

Other noteworthy performances include Brandon Walters as the aboriginal boy, giving as good a performance as I’ve ever seen from a child actor, and Jack Thompson as Faraway Down’s loveable alcoholic accountant Flynn.  Perhaps the most effective performance, though, comes from David Wenham (Faramir) as the villain, Fletcher.  Fletcher as a character is fascinating because of the journey he goes on (from bad to worse to evil), and Wenham is excellent in the role; a Supporting Actor nomination wouldn’t be out of the question.

Baz Luhrmann is famous for his use of music in his films, and while Australia moves away from a Pop-soundtrack, music is no less important.  The breathtaking score by David Hirschfelder is moving and emotional and reminded me of the kinds of sweeping scores found in epics of the forties; in the first half of the film, it certainly invokes an “old-timey” feel, though it becomes more epic as the film progresses.  The song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which Lady Ashley teaches the aboriginal boy early on, becomes a theme amongst the characters and is incorporated into the film score as a central motif, which is simply brilliant.

Not enough can be said about the cinematography, which deserves an Oscar nomination, if not a win.  Few films use their wide, 2.40:1 aspect ratio more effectively.  Luhrmann fills every inch of the screen with something interesting or beautiful, and the gorgeous landscape of Australia is captured in all its glory.  I can’t wait to see the movie on Blu-Ray.  For theaters (and you need to see this film in theaters), I would recommend seeing it on as big a screen as possible.

Australia runs 166 minutes long, but flies by; I loved every last minute of it.  The film is completely enveloping; you feel what the characters feel and are transported to the magical land down under for a terrific three hours.  If cinematic justice is done, Australia is sure to become a classic.  There are sequences bursting with such amazing quality that it becomes hard to believe what you’re watching.  I absolutely hate Baz Luhrmann’s film version of Romeo and Juliet (to the point where I vented my feelings in a ten page essay for school), but I can forgive that cinematic travesty in favor of this cinematic masterpiece.  Luhrmann has a great vision, and I can’t wait to see what he does next (here’s hoping it doesn’t take another seven years).  Australia is one of the best films of the year, and a movie event that you simply can’t miss.

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