Friday, November 28, 2008

Australia

Australia is the kind of movie that makes you remember what movies can do, it’s the kind of movie that wraps you up in the story and creates more than just striking images, it creates incredible film moments. Most movies are about telling stories, they go through the beats of the story in a perfunctory way, playing out the script to its conclusion. Some movies spend a lot of time on the visuals, and create beautiful images. But, truly great filmmaking is about a lot more than capturing interesting images. It’s about combining those images with music, and the emotion you get from being engaged with the narrative to create something transcendent. Watching this film, I kind of knew most of the story beats, things proceed as you’d probably expect them to, but, like the best stories, it made me doubt that what I knew would happen would happen, making the moment that might seem objectively inevitable so powerful in the happening.

I love both Baz Lurhman’s previous films, but see flaws in them as well. Moulin Rouge is a really frustrating movie for me in some ways because there’s moments in there that are as amazing as anything in cinema, think the love song medley atop an elephant, which culminates in an utterly exhilarating, swirling 360 camera shot, or the harrowing “Come What May” finale. But, then there’s moments that are just awful, like some of the goofier stuff with the Bohemians, and the “Like a Virgin” sequence. Romeo and Juliet is equally full of brilliant moments, the scene where Juliet walks past the fish tank with angel wings on is one of the most memorable single images of film in the 90s, and I love the overwhelming neon crosses lurking in the background of seemingly every scene.

Australia scales back on some of the eccentricity of his previous films, and their hyperpop postmodern aesthetic. It feels in a lot of ways like a lost film from classical Hollywood, epic in scale and emotion in the way those films were. An epic romance between an initially stuck up society lady and a roguish, but charming man against the backdrop of war could just as easily summarize Gone With the Wind as it could this film. Most classical Hollywood films didn’t have the veneer of irony that lies over so much of our cinema, and culture in general, today. We can watch them and laugh at the overblown scores or overwrought acting, disparage the films instead of engaging with them. Admittedly, some of the films were just bad or overdone, but at its best, classical Hollywood managed to make films that created these exquisite emotional dramas and then played them to the hilt.

Think of Casablanca, a film that holds up today, and will forever. It’s such a perfect mix of personal drama and larger scale conflict, using the war to magnify the individual stories. Without the war, the Rick/Ilsa drama doesn’t mean as much, and without their relationship, the war story feels remote and intellectual, instead of emotional. The oncoming troops may be a real danger for all involved, but we feel that danger because of what it means to our heroes. One of the few films more recently that captures that feel is The Empire Strikes Back. That’s a film that features a similarly big score and emotional scale, the doomed lovers and the evil empire are the same, only the circumstances are different.

Australia manages to capture that same feel, with its blend of interpersonal romantic drama and larger scale conflicts, each accentuating the other. It’s not the most innovative or groundbreaking film that Baz has done, but it made feel so much for the characters, get so absorbed in the emotional moments, that’s why I loved it.

The film has two fairly distinct parts, the cattle drive section resolves itself in such a way that the movie could end there and be perfectly satisfactory. This sequence has a lot more in common with most classic Hollywood Westerns than most of today’s gunslinger driven Westerns. Driving cattle around, was always the big thing, with the conflict between the wild and civilization as the centerpiece. The film echoes the iconic opening and closing shots of The Searchers a number of times, with its positioning of Sarah in the door frame, looking out at her ranch. The traditional Western deals with a protagonist who is too wild for civilization, and spends his time on the outskirts, making new territory safe for the people in town. Hugh Jackman’s Drover fits this description pretty neatly, and as is typical, he meets with up a civilized woman, who he in turn brings into his world, liberating her from stuffy societal expectations, and freeing up to a new kind of experience.

Like a lot of old Hollywood stars, Nicole Kidman has a very specific star persona. She has taken on a wide variety of roles, but there’s always an essential coldness to her, and Baz plays on that cool here by starting her out as the very English ice queen, then gradually melting her through her relationship with The Drover. Nicole is widely known, but I don’t think she’s ever been a huge draw at the box office. A lot of people dislike her, and my favorite roles of hers do play on that image, particularly her work in The Hours and Dogville. There’s a lot of joy in watching Sarah learn to do these wild things, like try to herd cattle or try to console Nullah after his mother died because we want to see Nicole Kidman do the same things. How would Nicole Kidman talk to you if your mother died? She can’t express feelings, right? Well, the film plays with that, and lets us see her develop in the kind of person who can feel.

In this film, the conflict between the wild and civilization is incarnated in Nullah, the mixed race child. He is not at home in either world at the beginning, bound by Fletcher and societal rules that could get him taken away from home and sent to a mission. Over the course of the film, he embraces both sides of his personality, using the Aboriginal ‘magic’ to connect with his grandfather, and save the cattle from going over the cliff. That moment was one of the awe inspiring bits I’m talking about. We watch the cattle running wild, the horses teetering on the edge of the cliff, tension is huge, magnified by Flynn getting run over. It’s all building up to this lone kid standing on the edge of a cliff, hoping to hold back the horde, and then he does it. In film, it’s the build up where you really feel things. Even if the cattle ran over the edge, that would still be kind of an emotional release, you’d know what was going to happen. The tension is in uncertainty, in the cattle running at this kid as he grits his teeth and prays that he can stop them.

Another great setpiece is the entrance of Sarah, The Drover and the cattle into Darwin. It’s an epic scale scene, with hundreds of cattle running around. Normally, why would you care who gets the army’s beef contract, but the film makes you care. You’re caught up in this struggle, even if the villains are pretty one note evil guys, not unlike Moulin Rouge’s Duke. It’s the emotional engagement that matters, and as tension builds while The Drover is looking for a way to stop the cattle, you’re caught up in that moment.

I think a large part of the reason why I loved the movie, and why so many seem to have mixed opinions on it, is the film’s total lack of irony or distance. We’re so used to watching films that put emotions in quotations marks, that leave enough distance that if a scene doesn’t work, you can just say, well, you weren’t really supposed to care anyway. It’s safer to do that, if you shoot something that’s supposed to be bad, whether it be bad or good, you’ve succeeded. This film turns the emotion up to 11, and if you’re not engaged with the narrative, I’d imagine it would come off as cheesy. But, the more you risk, the greater the payoff. By trying for real emotion, the film will ether totally grab you and put you through the wringer, or leave you cold. I don’t need a film that everyone’s going to like, I’d rather have a film that some people will love and some will hate. I loved the film so much, I feel like everyone would love it, but I suppose it is just as possible that people would be bored, or react against it.

After the cattle stuff is over, we get the wonderful kissing in rain sequence. One of the things I love about all Baz’s films is that he really thinks in cinematic terms. The visuals are the characters’ emotions, flooding forth onto the screen. Then, there’s a bit of a Return of the King situation where we get what could very easily be an ending to the film, only to segue into some darker times, as everyone leaves Sarah behind, and the war comes to Australia. The war section of the film is even stronger than what came before, culminating in the film’s best setpiece, the bombing of Darwin/rescue of the children sequence.

Watching this sequence made me that a filmmaker can still get this kind of budget to not do a sequel or blockbuster action movie. It’s an idiosyncratic, singular vision, and Baz got the money he needed to realize it. It’s so rare that you get a big budget movie like this, and if the Oscars are worth nothing else, they’re worth it for making these movies financially viable. Without both the prestige and financial reward that Oscars bring, the studios would have no reason to fund a film like this.

The scene uses a lot of outright melodramatic techniques to engage you emotionally. There’s the lengthy period where the Drover believes that Sarah is dead, her belief that Nullah is dead, and of course the fact that there’s twenty helpless children endangered by evil enemy soldiers, and for a time, we’re led to believe they’re all dead. I just wanted them all to get back together, and be happy again, and I think that’s a testament to the film. This one passed all those intellectual filters, that feeing that movies shouldn’t just have a happy ending, I wanted everyone to be okay, and was riveted as they all struggled back together.

Visually, I love the way they made Darwin look, a post apocalyptic world set against an expanse of surreal orange sky, or the way the soldiers were faceless specters that arose out of smoke and disappeared back into it again. The rescue of the children was really well done, leading up to that most melodramatic of moments, Sarah waiting, hoping that Nullah will return even as everyone says she has to leave. She’s going to go, but the boat’s right there, how can she not see it? And then, Nullah starts to play “Over the Rainbow,” and it’s just totally heartrending. She hears it, the song crosses the sea, and she looks out to them and they’re there. This finally leads to the reunion, drawn out shots build the suspense, until finally we get the embrace and reunion we’ve been waiting for.

The story ends with a reconciliation of the wild and the civilized, of white and black. King George will take Nullah on walkabout, but he’s not going forever. George also says that this is “our land,” he’s accepted Sarah and The Drover, he knows that they love Nullah and respect his values. It’s a mysterious ending, the story will continue even though we’re not there to see it.

This is my favorite film of 2008 so far. It hit me on a deep emotional level, and felt so much more alive and urgent than most movies out there. You can see a joy in the storytelling, a love for the material and a total investment in the emotional world of the characters. That’s what great cinema is all about, and this is great cinema.

3 comments:

jeremythecritic said...

Excellent analysis of an excellent film. You liked it more than I did, but I completely agree with nearly everything you said. It didn't hit me as emotionally as it did you but I appreciated what Baz pulled off here.

Great observation about Kidman and how we're interested seeing her do the things her character does. That hadn't occurred to me at all.

I'd watch this again in a heartbeat and it's grown on me a lot over the past few days. I'd agree it's one of the year's best.

Patrick said...

It's unfortunate that the film's bombed pretty heavily at the box office, if for no reason other than it's going to make it really tough for another director to get this kind of budget for something that isn't a sequel or comic book adaptation or something like that. I get that this might not be what people think of as a must see blockbuster, but surely there's something for everyone to enjoy here.

Justin said...

I agree on your interpretation of this movie. It's wonderful movie and brings a lot of emotions that you never felt before. As for the ending, it is a mysterious ending. I always felt in my heart Nullah would come back to Sarah and Drover; even though, if it wasn't 24/7 after his Walkabout. I think this ending that Baz's chose has something to do with the Presidential election and the world today. I think he wanted to leave a message of "hope" at the end of the movie. However, I am curious to listen to the DVD audio commentary about it.