There was a seven year gap between Baz Luhrmann’s cabaret tour de force Moulin Rouge and his sweeping 2008 cowboy epic Australia. Yet, from the ambitious title alone, it is clear to see that the director misplaced not a shred of self-confidence along the way. In fact, the title of the movie seems to hark back to the action packed novels of authors like James A Michener. These narratives were defined by their ambition; they brought together dramatic romance and exotic locales and this is exactly what Luhrmann attempts to do with Australia.
He captures some of this multi-generational exoticism by telling his tale through the eyes of a young aboriginal boy. Whilst the locale is (thankfully) restricted to the north of the country and the time period to three years after the onset of World War II, the film still manages to feel like an exercise in grand storytelling. It enacts a range of Hollywood tropes and characteristics on the Australian experience, eventually dividing itself into two aspects – a western and a war movie.
Sweeping Vistas and Desolate Hearts
In Australia, screen siren and genuine Aussie Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a rather clichéd British aristocrat who travels to the outback to reunite with her wayward spouse, who manages a cow farm in the north. She is met by a man known as ‘the Drover,’ whose responsibility it is to get her there safely. This gnarly man of the outback is played wonderfully by Hugh Jackman, who offers that perfect blend of arrogance and naivety.
There are definitely echoes of old school flames like John Wayne and Maureen O’ Hara here, particularly in the relationship between the Drover and Lady Sarah. They start the film all tension and hostility, but after Sarah’s husband is murdered by rival farmers, the two find their fates lashed together and that tension begins to melt.
A Generous Dose of Absurdity
As the two (later joined by the narrator, Nullah) whip across turbulent desert landscapes, filled with all manner of dangers, Australia really starts to come into its own as an epic. The cinematography is simply beautiful and the bravura score is exceptionally bold and brilliant. It is hard not to let your heart leap into your mouth whilst watching the cattle drive sequences which form the heart of the film, even if the characters do feel rather well-worn.
The concluding half of the movie involves a slight shift, as the western makes way for war. It is every bit as dramatic as the first half and, if possible (it seems difficult), even sillier. We see Lady Sarah desperately trying to prevent Nullah from being sent away to a mission compound for aboriginal children. Of course, as she does this, the Japanese army lands on the island and it looks like things might be over for all three of them.
Hiding Romance in the Surreal
The bottom line is that Australia really is a very silly movie. It is big, bold, brash, and completely unapologetic about being all of these things. Whilst this can make it hard to take seriously at times, it does offer a remarkable amount of fun – especially if you can disengage your brain and just go with the madness. You could say a similar thing about most of Luhrmann’s films; you have to have some confidence to re-imagine Romeo and Juliet in modern America, for example.
And how could a western epic like this end with anything but a happy reunion? The close of Australia leaves the world still at war, but Lady Sarah and her Drover have found their way back into one another’s arms. There is no need to ask if they will have a happy ending, because we know, of course, that they will – they have traveled the vast expanses of the outback together, felt the sensations associated with being truly wild, and along the way, discovered themselves too.