' Cinema Romantico: Australia

Monday, December 01, 2008

Australia

Oh, what could have been. It has been quite some time since I've been so utterly distraught over a film's fate. For about an hour and forty-five minutes I was, frankly, in moviegoing heaven. I was beaming at the screen. At the midway point there is a sequence at a luxurious ball where the Hugh Jackman character has unexpectedly (which is to say, totally expectedly) shown up and shares a dance with the Nicole Kidman character and at the precise moment the song ends the camera pans up to reveal storm clouds on the horizon - meaning north Australia's dry season is ending to pave way for the rainy season - and then the camera and our characters move outside and it starts to rain and Jackman says "When it's dry, I'll be droving" and Kidman says "But right now it's raining" and then they kiss as the music swells like the waves off Bondi Beach.

Now, from that description you will know straight away whether or not this is a movie you would have any interest in. Me? By the time that scene ended I was ready to hop up from my seat and do cartwheels in front of the screen. It is vintage Hollywood. It is a grandiose spectacle with equal parts schmaltz and sincerity. However, they say the third act is the toughest to pull off and, tragically, Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" proves the rule rather than illustrating the exception.

The movie opens with a "Star Wars"-esque text scroll - and this isn't the only other movie the movie quotes, believe me - and then proceeds on to a narration by a young boy of mixed race named Nullah (Brandon Walters) who advises this story takes place in a "far away land". This offers a distinct storybook vibe and also works as a means to ask the audience to turn in its irony card at the door, which I did with supreme glee.

Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, a stuffy British aristocrat whose dimwit husband has ventured off to Australia and mismanaged a cattle farm straight into the ground. So Lady Ashley lights out for the nothern territory to sell the place known as Faraway Downs (great name). Ah, but once there her life gets flipped upside down most promptly. Her husband has been killed, possibly by a supposed evil aborigine known as King George or more possibly at the hands of thugs supplied by our chief villain, Ashley's rival cattle baron King Carney (great name). She meets Nullah, working on the farm, whom she will come to see as her own. Did I mention she meets the cattle guy who droves named, well, Drover? I didn't? Well, she does. The Drover, played by Jackman, winds up being the inevitable love interest and also the guy who leads the cattle drive when Lady Ashley decides, as she must, not to sell the farm and instead take its stock of 1500 cattle across the harsh countryside to sell them ahead of King Carney's own cattle drive.

Her hair getting more messy in accordance with how much her character opens up, Lady Ashley transforms from the helpless Fish Out Of Water to a can-do helping hand on the Drover-led drive. As the herd makes its way into a canyon of towering peaks, the sun setting, Lady Ashley and Drover silouhetted against it, leading to an ominous shot of the four Bad Guys in the same dusky setting hot on their trail, I couldn't help but think the only way this would be more perfect is if the damn thing was in Technicolor.

I mean, really, at the end of the second act I was just having the most wonderful time at this movie. I cannot express this sentiment to the degree it truly warrants. But that text-scroll at the start I mentioned lets us know that WWII is coming which means the Japanese are going to show up to start bombing the hell out of the place and we are also probably assuming that at some point the Drover will feel himself getting tied down to Lady Ashley and Lady Ashley trying to keep him on the homestead and so on and so forth. The first two acts distinctly feel as if the characters' decisions are driving things onward. But the third act starts to feel as if the plot and the plot mechanics are driving the characters onward and that's when things start to fall apart.

It really got depressing for me at the end because I was sitting there hoping and praying that we had just happened upon a little downturn and that, damn it, the movie was gonna' pull out of it and rebound and get back to that ludicrous, old-fashioned sweep of the start, but it refused to happen.

All that said, I still recommend seeing it (bear in mind it's almost three hours) for that first hour and forty-five minutes. Of course, you have to be of a certain personality type. If you can still get into "Gone With the Wind" in this day and age (Lady Ashley & the Drover are totally Scarlett & Rhett) and if you dug "Titanic" and didn't just spend your time whining about why he didn't get on the board with her than get the hell outta' your house and go watch this and you'll deal with the third act when it comes and, yeah, it's going to be a bit sad because you too will bemoan the fact perfection was missed.

But as each hour passes the more the end fades from my memory. The first two acts, those are what I will remember and I will remember them because this sort of material simply does not get made anymore. Why? Who knows? It just seems like people of my generation don't dig on this sort of stuff. Maybe it goes back to what I was saying in my "Happy Go Lucky" review - you know, how earstnessness is seemingly viewed as a negative trait in society anymore. And if people frown on too much earstnessness, how in the hell are they going to enjoy as something as passionately heartfelt, as extravagantly theatrical, as marvelously melodramatic as "Australia"?

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