' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: (The First Hour And Forty-Five Minutes Of) Australia

Friday, September 10, 2010

My Great Movies: (The First Hour And Forty-Five Minutes Of) Australia

If a movie is fabulous for an hour and forty five minutes before suffering a precipitous drop for the remainder of its almost three hour running time can it still be considered great? I don't see why not. It has a beginning and it has a middle and....well, okay. It doesn't have an end. So what? Not everything needs a great finish. Mozart didn't finish the Requiem. Gaudi didn't finish the Sagrada Familia. But what they did finish was spectacular enough all on its own to be considered great, right?

And the first hour and forty five minutes of "Australia" is great, and it's great in the way that only a movie named for a country wrapped up in an island wrapped up in a continent could ever be. It's grand, so grand it threatens to overwhelm you with grandeur, bash you in the face with bombast, whisk you away with its sweep. Most scenes should be prefaced with the words "As If On Cue...." Cynics need not apply. Dreamers and romantics, come on down, this one's for you. When did "who talks like that in real life?" and "that would never happen in the real world" become valid film criticisms? When was pomp given the evil eye and circumstance kicked to the curb? When did movies lose their......movieness?

There are rumors that Russell Crowe did not get the lead role not because of scheduling conflicts or salary demands but because in rehearsal he kept trying to pull up some repressed memory to generate emotion at which point director Baz Luhrmann yelled, "By God, there will be no Method in this movie!" Nuh uh, no sir, not a chance. "Australia" revs up the time machine and returns to the Golden Age, when operas weren't just in opera houses but on movie screens and emotions came at you like tidal waves and the distinctions of good and evil were handed out like ginormous slices of apple pie topped with rich whipped cream.

"Australia" does not raise its curtain with "Once Upon A Time", though it comes awfully close, settling instead on "The Territory was a land of crocodiles, cattle barons and warrior chiefs where adventure and romance was a way of life." Hell to the yeah. The rest of the elaborate stage is then set in a voiceover from Nullah, a mixed blood Aboriginal 12 year old, played with bottomless charisma by Brandon Walters, who advises: "Grandfather teach me most important lesson of all. Tell 'em story." And tell us a story he does, story being the critical word here since that's what it is - a story, a fable, a fairytale, a ripping yarn. A veritable truth it is not. I direct you here if that is what you so desire.

Are the veritable truth people gone? Superb. Good riddance. Now on with our story! It opens in England where pampered Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), her hair tucked away tightly beneath a riding hat, is advised her philandering husband has driven his once prosperous cattle ranch in the Northern Territory with the extravagant moniker Faraway Downs into the ground. Thus, Lady Ashley will light out for down under to tell the cheeky bugger where he can stick it. She is met by an Australian cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) with the gloriously expository name of Drover - "Everything I own I can fit in my saddlebag" - whose duty it will be to escort her from the civilization of Darwin to the wilds of the outback as we quickly infer Lady Ashley is no mere Fish Out Of Water. It's worse. She's a Woody Allen Character Out Of Manhattan And Placed In California Circa 1849.

Once reaching Faraway Downs, however, in the requisite plot development, we learn her husband has been murdered. The finger is pointed at Nullah's grandfather, King George, ah, but in reality, it is the handiwork of Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), resembling a sinister sewer rat, who had pawned himself off as an employee of Ashley's but, in reality, works as the right hand man of the mandatory villain, the magnificently named King Carney (Bryan Brown), the most cantankerous cattle baron in the southern hemisphere who longs for a monolopy and Faraway Downs, as it must, is all that stands in his way. Initially it seems Lady Ashley is content to play right into Carney's hands and sell the property but a nighttime encounter with Nullah, who explains all, changes her mind and becomes determined to drive Faraway Downs' 1500 head of cattle across the dusty, deserted plains to Darwin while Carney, the writer, the art director, and visual effects coordinator will throw every possible obstacle in her path. The crew she assembles for the drove is so motley and ragtag it could only be led by the Drover himself and thankfully, heroically, he turns up to do just that!

It is virtually impossible to imagine Russell Crowe - who really was Luhrmann's initial idea - in the role of the Drover. He would have spent the entire time glowering and trying to turn line readings of "Krikey" into statetments on all of mankind's plight and generally treating the whole thing like a textbook that leaves every child in class snoring. Jackman's theatrical background, on the other hand, made him the perfect choice because he can play it any way you want, whether he's doing the fox trot, barking orders from the back of a horse, or brawling in a saloon and, crucially, he only takes the most serious parts seriously. It is a finely tuned performance, even if the tune is typically that of an overwrought Brahms Symphony. Kidman, meanwhile, is so often dismissed by the hoity toitys as an Ice Queen and if this is true, well, then she's a Dreamsicle Ice Queen. She convincingly transitions from a prim gentlelady - "Oh, Ranston, drink your tea" - to an English rose whithering in the Outback to an enlightened, involved eucalyptus whose attitudes and abilities undergo change while the core of the character remains the same. It's a mean feat and whether she's had a little botox or smorgasboards of botox, I don't care, so long as she can act. Newsflash: she can.

Over the course of their cattle venture secrets will be revealed, Faraway Downs' alcholic accountant will, as he must, find redemption and Lady Ashley will let her hair down literally and figuratively as a glimmer of romance appears between she and the Drover. Will they survive? Will they reach Darwin to load their cattle ahead of King Carney's cattle load? Will Lady Ashley be chosen as patroness of the Darwin Ball? Will The Wet arrive just in time for Lady Ashley and the Drover to share their first kiss?

To accuse the first hour and forty-five minutes of "Australia" of being predictable is, well, predictable because even though it's predictable it is all so unabashedly done without irony that it is, in fact, extremely rare. You must give yourself over to it. Toss your doubt over the nearest cliff, check your sarcasm at the door, remind yourself that as you set foot inside the cinema you are entering a place where reality no longer beckons. "('Australia') is a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion," wrote Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. Indeed, the first shot quotes "Gone With The Wind," "The Wizard Of Oz" is referenced numerous times, and many moments suggest a more sunburnt "Red River." All of which seems to be Luhrmann's openhearted way of grabbing hold of each and every viewer and shaking him or her and screaming, "Why don't they make 'em like this anymore?! Why?!" It's a necessary question that Luhrmann addresses with beauty and scope and compositions worthy of Technicolor and 70 mm film.

And as I re-watched the first half of "Australia" in preparation for this post, as The Wet arrives in a sequence that is, to enlist Roff Smith's words in National Geographic for the actual event itself, "an explosive Wagnerian crescendo," I realized with a vengeance to rival the powerhouse rains themselves that I had it all wrong. The first hour and forty-five minutes is far from unfinished. It's there, all there, a resolution that would have resulted in perfection, crying out for the movie to conclude, just conclude, right here, right now, fade to black and roll credits, please! No mother forgets her child, our skin is merely a color, nothing more, magic exists, love, as we all know, overcomes all odds, and movies such as this can take stories, fables, fairytales, ripping yarns of preposterous height and render them entirely authentic. And as the most concise of montages plays out, fitting everyone with a happy ending that deserves it, and we see The Wet come and we see The Wet go and we the Drover go off to drove and we hear Nullah return to voiceover and advise us Lady Ashley "always misses Drover, but I know he's gonna come back," followed by a shot of our leads leaping into an embrace, I understood without even having to think about it that this was the proper ending, the rest mattered not at all, and so I hit stop on the DVD player and shut off the TV. And no doubt the cynics and the proprietors of that gloom and doom Real World Motel down the street will hem and haw about how there is more, a whole hour more, how the facts of WWII enter the picture, and how this changes everything, the story, the fates of the characters, the meaning, on and on, and because it's there, because it exists, it is our duty as film critics to watch it, all of which I bite my thumb at while turning to the words of Lady Sarah Ashley herself.

Just because it is doesn't mean it should be.

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