THE REEL ESTATE: Far away in the land of boredom

Joseph Fahim
8 Min Read

January is increasingly becoming one of the slowest months for movies. This year in particular, things have been slower than usual. Apart from the disappointing major Arabic Eid movies along with the usual slew of Hollywood’s holiday blockbusters, no new pictures of worth have been released in Egyptian theaters, mainly due to the deference of mid-year vacation till the end of the month.

With very limited options on offer, I decided, with a heavy heart, to succumb to temptation and watch Baz Luhrmann’s former Oscar contender “Australia, the season’s biggest turkey.

It didn’t appear like that last October, a month before the film premiered in the US. The last pairing of Luhrmann and Nicole Kidman resulted in the Oscar-nominated smash “Moulin Rouge. The trailer and production notes promised an old-fashioned epic romance on the scale of “Gone with the Wind; the kind of films they don’t make anymore.

Two months later, the $150 million production was officially certified as the year’s biggest flop, grossing a measly $50 million in North America. Critics were not merciful either, and I can’t say I was surprised when the film was completely shunned this award’s season.

After enduring two and a half hours of bad acting, over-the-top direction and tacky special effects, the one thing I commend about “Australia is Mandy Walker’s gorgeous cinematography which, to be honest, is not enough of a reason to watch the film.

Set in 1939, the story is told from the point of view of a half white/half aboriginal boy named Nullah, played by newcomer Brandon Walters.

Luhrmann’s favorite leading lady plays the uptight Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley who, after hearing of her husband’s philandering in their vast cattle ranch Faraway Downs in northern Australia, decides to go down there and investigate the claims herself.

Upon her arrival, a brash, high-tempered and chisel-chested Drover (Hugh Jackman) is hired to escort her to the ranch. Shortly after, she learns that her husband has been murdered.

Nullah’s grandfather’s King George (David Gulpilil from Nicolas Roeg’s classic “Walkabout ) has been accused of the murder, forcing him to flee to a mountaintop where he keeps a watchful eye over his grandson.

The blatant, cartoonish villain of the film is a wily mercenary named Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) who works for King Carney (Bryan Brown), a wealthy entrepreneur seeking to take control of Faraway Downs.

After discovering Fletcher’s deceit, Sarah decides to stay and fight off King Carney. Sarah, who initially hits the wrong note with Drover, puts her dignity aside and asks the freewheeling cowboy to help her deliver her large cattle to the port city of Darwin. As King Carney and Fletcher attempt to sabotage their venture, the two begin to warm up to each other.

Meanwhile, Nullah continues to hide from the local authorities, who are enforcing a policy of hunting aboriginal kids, separating them from their mothers, and placing them at missionaries where they’re basically transformed into servants, all in the name of God and goodwill.

Sarah, who happens to be barren, grows fond of the boy, taking him as the son she never had. The race between Sarah’s clan and King Canary intensifies, and just when you think the film is over, a separate storyline involving World War II is thrust on the original narrative for no tangible reason but the sheer expansion of the scope of the film.

“Australia begins with a zappy, bouncy montage introducing all principle characters. Before long, the pace drops drastically, and then the film drags on, and on, and on with nothing much to savor.

Luhrmann, a self-professed film guru, has embraced every Hollywood cliché in the book, conjuring a story that harks at the sappiness of “Gone with the Wind, the adventure romance of “The African Queen, the fundamental premise of “Red River and, to add a touch of vain importance to the mix, the weighty historical message of “Rabbit-Proof Fence.

The final result, as messy, tedious and negligible as it is, is ambitious and sincere. But if history has taught one lesson, it would be that sincerity isn’t enough to create a good picture.

“Australia is pure kitsch, and not the inventive Tarantino-type. From the hammy dialogue (Sarah: Let’s go home. Drover: There’s no place like it!) and the predictable, corny movie references (“Wizard of Oz ) to the CGI cattle droves and garish, soaring score, nothing seems to work in a film too fixated on emulating classic models rather than telling a good story.

No wonder the performances are mostly below average despite the high-caliber of involved talents. Kidman has her moments, occasionally succeeding in striking a rare balance between comedy and conflicting emotions. Mostly though, she’s icy and impassive, displaying a blank face of a character that feels like an expressionless marionette lifted from John Huston’s romances.

Jackman gives a satisfactory, but not remarkable, performance that heavily relies on his good looks and sturdy physique. But even he can’t escape Luhrmann’s outlandishness, intently flaunting his muscular figure in the film’s infamously erotic shower scene that left the girls in the theater swooning.

My favorite, most unintentionally funny scene of the film is the ballroom dance scene: Jackman, with a freshly shaved face, makes an unexpected entry to the hall with a look that cries “Are you talking to me? and “Baby, we’re gonna get it on tonight.

Parts of the film are undeniably picturesque, and Luhrmann does show a talent for creating beautiful images abundant with contrasts between Australia’s cosmic deserts and clear blue skies. DOP Walker sets Kidman and Jackman, in a number of scenes, against the sunset, rendering them as silhouetted figures against the captivating backdrop.

In fact, the entire film is, to a great extent, a postcard from down under, replete with bouncing kangaroos and an exotic, distinctive atmosphere. But again, these few flashes of radiance are drowned under a portentous cloud of unfocused, tasteless storytelling.

I left “Australia unmoved, cold and somehow frustrated by the failure of film to engage. The great romantic melodramas like “Gone with the Wind simply don’t work any longer when updated or modulated in present time, at least not with such straightforwardness.

Most of the few successful epic romances of the last decade, from “The English Patient to “Atonement, adopted a different narrative style, permeating their stories with a certain degree of emotional realism crucially absent from Luhrmann’s film. “Australia aspired to be “Gone with the Wind, but at the end, it settle for being another ambitious bomb on the vein of “Heaven’s Gate, one of the biggest flops of all time.

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