Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Movie Review: Australia

First Disclaimer: I would pay to watch Hugh Jackman read the phone book. So, no, this review is definitely not unbiased.

Australia is told from the point of view of a young boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters). He is a "creamy": half-white, half-aborigine. His grandfather, King George, is a "magic" man who is teaching young Nullah the songs that impart all the wisdom of the Aboriginal people. Nullah has some magic in him, too, but he also realizes that he does not belong to the Aboriginal world. Neither does he belong to the white world. He has to find his own spot.

Complicating matters, the Australian Government is removing mixed-blood children from their Aboriginal mothers, forcing the children to attend boarding schools with the intention of "breeding the black" out of them. So Nullah and his mother are ever watchful for the local law.

The year is 1939. World War II has begun, but is confined to Continental Europe for the moment. A young English woman, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), flies to Darwin, Australia, to persuade her husband to sell his cattle ranch and come home to England where he belongs. However, her husband's cattle station, Faraway Downs, is the only competition for the local cattle baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown). Carney is trying to drive Lord Ashley out of business so he will be the sole provider of beef cattle to the Australian Army.

Lord Ashley has sent his cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) to meet Lady Ashley at the pier in Darwin and bring her to Faraway Downs. The drover is self-employed, working for whomever he chooses. While waiting for Lady Ashley in the local bar, one of Carney's men insults him, calling him a "Boo lover." Drover slugs the man and the fight is on, moving out into the street, where Lady Ashley's luggage becomes part of the melee. She is horrified to see her lingerie scattered across the dirt street. Drover--for that's the only name he's called during the film--mutters an apology. They begin the two-day journey to Faraway Downs in a beat-up truck, overtopped with what ends up being a couch and arm chair.

Of course, Lady Ashley and Drover despise each other. She thinks he has designs on her. He informs her that he wouldn't sleep with her if she were the last female on Earth.

We know where it's going to lead--right?

Thirty minutes (or less--I wasn't looking at my watch), Drover has his shirt off and is washing up. For those who remember Mr. Jackman in Leopold and Kate, it's obvious Mr. Jackman has been working out. With good results.

When they reach Faraway Downs, Lord Ashley has been killed and King George is the primary suspect. Lady Ashley discovers that the foreman of the station has been working for Carney as well as beating Nullah (whom she suspects is his son) and Nullah's mother on a regular basis.

She fires him. He leaves, taking his men with him.

But there are 2000 head of cattle that need to be driven to Darwin if she is to have a chance at the government contract. She needs Drover's help. He's not sure that a well-bred Englishwoman can survive the tough ride.

And this is just the first half of the movie.

If you've ever watched a Western that involves a cattle drive, you know what will happen, more or less. What makes this drive different is Nullah. His grandfather is always watching from a distance. And Nullah is a special boy--he has learned his lessons well and he is brave. Frankly, Brandon Walters steals this movie from Ms. Kidman and Mr. Jackman, much as the director tries to limit his screen time.

There are lots of soulful looks between Lady Sarah and Drover. A lot of close-ups, which will probably play better on the small screen once this movie is released on DVD. There are discussions about the land and the importance of having a story and of song.

The cattle drive ends in Darwin, which sets up the next scene: a charity ball to fund the Mission where the mixed-blood children will live. This provides an opportunity for Ms. Kidman to wear a beautiful gown and for Mr. Jackman to clean up and wear a white dinner jacket. He does clean up well. The scene also gives Ms. Kidman a speech about how horrible it is to tear these children from their mothers and to show how small-minded and prejudiced the average white Australian was in 1939.

There is an interlude of relative calm until 1942. Using newsreel footage, the move jumps forward to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and on the movements of the Japanese through Southeast Asia. Drover accepts an assignment from the Australian Army: a six-month "drove" of cattle. Nullah wants to go walkabout with King George. Lady Ashley doesn't want either of them to go, so Nullah sneaks off and she tells Drover that if he leaves, he shouldn't return. So (of course), he leaves.

However, Nullah hasn't gone walkabout--he's been taken by the sheriff and is going off to Mission Island, which is directly in the path of the Japanese. Lady Ashley can't save him, but she can help with the war effort, monitoring the radio transmissions from the priest at Mission Rock.

Meanwhile, Drover is having his psyche dissected by his best friend, who happens to be an Aborigine. They notice planes flying over--Americans--and Drover figures that this is not a good sign. They ride back to Darwin in time to see the place in flames. Drover assumes Lady Ashley is dead and, when he hears that Mission Island has been attacked, commandeers a boat to find Nullah.

The acting is uniformly good. The writing could have been tighter and more true to the time: would an English lady really leave the manor to travel to the Outback? Would she really go against the conventional thinking about Aborigines? To her credit, Ms. Kidman makes it seem plausible. Mr. Jackman plays the quintessential cowboy, albeit an Australian. His toughness covers his vulnerability. His actions speak instead of his words.

The love scenes are discreet. The language is clean for the most part.

I was happily surprised that this was not another "Convicts come to Australia" movie. I tend to forget how close to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Theater Australia was. I wish I had looked at map beforehand, though, to get oriented as to where Darwin is on the continent. In the opening credits, it looks like the film was signed off by a group representing the Indigenous People (I don't remember the exact name and it's not listed on IMDb). Their characters and their traditions are presented very respectfully. In fact, I wish there had been more about them in the movie.

At the end of the movie, there is a note that the forced removal of children was ended in the 1950's and the Australian Government issued a formal apology to the "Stolen Generation."

Word of warning: do not drink a large soda prior to the movie. There is no intermission. ;)

There wasn't quite enough action to keep Hubs completely engaged. (Nicole Kidman is too thin for his tastes.) DS#2 (18), DD#1 (22), and DD#2 (15) want to see it--and I'd be willing to see it with them.

A good movie if you need a break from the holiday madness.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out 5 Golden Tickets

crossposted at The Mad Tea Party

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