(director/writer: Baz Luhrmann; screenwriters: Stuart Beattie/Ronald Harwood/Richard Flanagan; cinematographer: Mandy Walker; editors: Dody Dorn/Michael McCusker; music: David Hirschfelder; cast: Nicole Kidman (Lady Sarah Ashley), Hugh Jackman (the Drover), David Wenham (Neil Fletcher), Bryan Brown (King Carney), Jack Thompson (Kipling Flynn), David Gulpilil (King George), Brandon Walters (Nullah), David Ngoombujarra (Magarri), Anton Monsted (Maitland Ashley), Jack Thompson (Kipling Flynn), Ben Mendelsohn (Captain Dutton), Wah Yuen (Sing Song), Tony Barry (Sergeant Callahan); Runtime: 155; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Baz Luhrmann/G. Mac Brown/Catherine Knapman; Twentieth Century Fox; 2008)
“A strictly 1940s vintage Hollywood florid spectacle melodrama.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A strictly 1940s vintage Hollywood florid spectacle melodrama, that’s a would-be epic driven off course because it’s mushy, overlong, implausible, cloying, predictable and all the characters are one-dimensional. I might also add that in its bid to say something important it condescendingly tells of Australia’s inhumane assimilation policy that forced the “half-caste” children from their families to be raised by church groups and created what sadly came to be known as “the Lost Generations,” a stain on the country’s reputation.
It’s a derivative period adventure film offered on a splashy visual palette that’s so beautifully filmed in an array of stunning copper colors. But it’s also an unwieldly labor of love that never completely gets across the old movie magic it strives for, as filmed by the talented Aussie director Baz Luhrmann (“Strictly Ballroom”/”Moulin Rouge!”/ “William Shakespeares Romeo + Juliet”). It’s his homage to his home country that plays as a sort of Down Under “Red River.” Unfortunately the visually imaginative Luhrmann is without the same storytelling ability as Howard Hawks, and the enticingly entertaining but overstuffed flight of fancy film needlessly stumbles as it covers a lot more territory than it can do justice to. Mr. Luhrmann gives us kangaroos, Aborigines, magic, an old-fashioned lurid romance, a villain or two that you can hiss at, a cattle drive and stampede, Japanese invaders from WWII bombing the Aussie city of Darwin, and a film that doesn’t know how to end gracefully after it has long worn out its welcome. Writers Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan and Luhrmann can’t get any bounce out of the flat dialogue or much of a rise out of its PC melodramatics or do much more with its insights than offer so much twaddle.
It’s 1939, during the beginning days of WW II, and the feisty refined Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) leaves her posh English country estate to arrive for the first time at her husband’s cattle station, Faraway Downs, in the harsh Northern Territory of England’s former penal colony, Australia. She wants to check out if her womanizing hubby is up to no good and to sell the place for fair value and not the cheap price offered by the cattle baron of the region King Carney (Bryan Brown), who is trying to gain a monopoly in the cattle business by snuffing out all competition.
As Sarah gets off the boat, she’s to be met by a rugged frontiersman aptly called the Drover (Hugh Jackman), who was hired by her hubby to escort her to the vast remote outback ranch. The ill-mannered Drover is put off with her snootiness just as she’s put off with his rough ways, which means a romance will soon be in the works according to movie lore.
The three-day desert ride to the station ends in several complications, such as Sarah’s hubby has been killed by a glass-tipped spear supposedly thrown by a witch doctor named King George (David Gulpilil); the shaman’s grandson, a gentle perky wide-eyed boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), an Aboriginal child whose father is white and housekeeper at the ranch mother is black, is hiding there because he doesn’t want to be forced to live in a mission run by the church in far off Mission Island to be civilized so he can later have a menial position with whites; and, Sarah fires on the spot the evil Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), the sneaky ruthless crooked ranch manager who secretly works for King Carney–his soon to be father-in-law. Sarah learns from Nullah, the son Fletcher doesn’t recognize as his, that Fletcher’s stealing the ranch’s best cattle and giving it to King Carney. Fletcher’s response to this accusation is to send the kid to the mission, while her reaction is to hide him from the lawman.
The free-spirited Drover, our reluctant hero, gets talked into helping the widowed lady in distress after receiving an offer he can’t refuse. With a ragtag bunch of cowboys that include–Nullah’s mother and grandmother, a Chinese cook (Wah Yuen), the ranch’s drunken white English accountant (Jack Thompson), the Aboriginal father of Drover’s deceased wife, Magarri (David Ngoombujarra), Nullah and Sarah–they will drive the 1,500 head of herd to far off Darwin to sell to the army. On the way they are waylaid by Fletcher and his goons, on orders from King Carney to stop them by any means, but miraculously they get through in time to get the army contract and force King Carney to offer more money in his bid to buy her ranch.
The film’s second half then goes into the well-tested romantic formula mode, as Sarah and Drover share a bed after their successful venture and Nullah becomes like a son to them after his mom accidentally drowned. It also details how Sarah now refuses to sell the ranch, more injustices Nullah (the film’s narrator) has to undergo at the hands of the bigoted white authorities, how the Aussies moved up there war effort after Pearl Harbor and how the war deeply affected Sarah’s dysfunctional clan.
By the end everything seems artificial and staged, including the story, the unbelievable magic by a nearly naked tribesman popping up out of nowhere in times of danger to help the grandson he mentors in magic, and the unconvincing romance that seems more obligatory to movie lore than a real one.
It might start out as “Giant,” but before you can say “I don’t give a damn!” it seems like “Gone With the Wind.” But it can’t stop there, and by the second half becomes as loud and tawdry as Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor.” If you want, you won’t be wrong to throw in a little “Indiana Jones” or “Titanic” or “The African Queen” or any of the John Ford epics into the mix, as Luhrmann is shamelessly trying to saddle nostalgia and old-fashioned Hollywood magic through a boat load of plot contrivances. This is the kind of familiar film from a different era that has sometimes been done better and sometimes worse. But for me, its bad spots are what linger more than its few moments of hitting pay-dirt.
REVIEWED ON 11/28/2008 GRADE: C+