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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » January 21, 2009
Film review
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January 21, 2009 By Witold Żygulski   
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Australian director Baz Luhrmann built his reputation on an extravagant style best exemplified by Romeo & Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). Luhrmann has just broken his seven-year drought by dishing up, surprisingly, a textbook tearjerker. Australia finds him directing a cast of front-rank Aussie actors in a melodrama set against a picture postcard setting of outback Australia at the outbreak of World War II.

But you can leave the smelling salts at home. The story is inordinately rambling and long-winded, even the minutiae of the plot are painfully predictable, and the movie has a high kitsch factor that rises precipitously during the second half. Australia is only redeemed by the glorious photography of its natural scenes.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman-Moulin Rouge!, Cold Mountain, The Hours) comes to Australia from London to visit her husband, a cattle breeder with a spread the size of several English counties. Unbeknown to Ashley, another long journey, this time in the company of a taciturn drover with a mysterious past (Hugh Jackman-X-men series, The Fountain, The Prestige), awaits her on her arrival Down Under. When she finally gets to the cattle station, she learns that her husband has just been murdered by a local shaman, that the station is sinking into bankruptcy and that everything else is pretty much cactus as well. At least that is how the administrator, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham-Lord of the Rings, Van Helsing) tells it. But Fletcher's lies are soon exposed by Nullah, a strange, haunted half-caste aboriginal boy unwanted by either the local aborigines or the white settlers. Nullah, who occasionally doubles as the narrator of the story, communes with spirits and beneficent powers through his grandfather, the previously mentioned shaman. He tells Lady Ashley that Fletcher has long been in league with King Carney (Bryan Brown-F/X series, Breaker Morant, Tai-Pan), a local tycoon and cattle trade monopolist.

You don't have to be a genius to see how this is all going to pan out. The valiant little English lady takes on the villains against all the odds with no one but Nullah and the drover to support her. A little romance blossoms between Ashley and the drover. Meanwhile, the prospect of being shunted off to an orphanage hangs over Nullah due to his mixed parentage. Luhrmann's exploitation of the suffering of children is even more tiresome than the tacky magic he alludes to through songs from The Wizard of Oz.

The film ends with a Japanese air raid on Darwin. The main cast face their ultimate test in the bombed out port to set the scene for the inevitable schmaltzy happy ending.

It's understandable that the Australian filmmakers wanted to add their own contribution to the apology Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made to the aboriginal people in January 2008, the first ever from an Australian leader. The end credits state that Australian aboriginies were, incredibly, compulsorily assimilated until 1973. But did whatever mea culpa Australia was meant to deliver have to take the form of 160 minutes of pretentious kitsch in which what are supposed to be deeply moving scenes actually have people rolling in the aisles?
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