australiaphoto

I’m a big, big fan of Luhrmann’s two previous films – Romeo + Juliet (1996) is not only the best film adaptation of the star-crossed lovers’ tale, but one of the best Shakespeare films in general, a heady pop-culture rush of breathless energy that seamlessly blends high and low culture to produce a film that is exciting, thrilling, tragic and alive. Moulin Rouge! (2001) was even better – an astonishing pantomime carnival of music, dance, colour, life and love, a manic display of kitchen-sink, throw-everything-at-the-screen, endlessly inventive filmmaking.

So what the hell happened with Australia? Apart from a (very, very) few moments, mostly in its okayish-I-guess first hour, Australia is precisely the sort of turgid, plodding, lifeless and uninspired “prestige” cinema that Luhrmann’s earlier films were such a refreshing antidote to. Where is all the energy, the wit, the visual imagination, the joie de vivre? Where is the never-pause-for-breath pace, the wit, the postmodern playing with genre, the fun?

Australia feels like Luhrmann behaving himself, wanting to show us he’s grown up, has put away childish things and is tackling Big, Important Themes. Racism! War!  Wait…maybe that didn’t come across clearly enough. RACISM! WAR! And rest assured that from the opening title cards explaining the background story of Australia’s “Stolen Generations” of aboriginal children to…well, the fade-out title cards talking about exactly the same thing, the film won’t let you forget for one second what it’s really about. There’s no avoiding the feeling that this is Luhrmann angling for a mantelpiece-ful of Academy Awards, reining in anything even remotely “edgy” about his film-making and aiming resolutely for the middlebrow – and it’s painful.

There are slight glimmers of hope in the first hour-and-a-half, which is where all the few recognizable hints of Luhrmann are concentrated. This section is basically a pop-buddy-Western, following the very English Lady Sarah Ashley and the very Australian Drover (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, who both give in decent, if unremarkable, performances) in their quest to drive Lady Ashley’s herd of cattle to the port of Darwin before the evil cattle corporation can win the army contract.  There are a few decent moments of comedy, it moves along at a brisk pace, there are some diverting moments of excitement, one or two impressive shots, a romance, predictable character arcs, a happy ending, even a couple of sequences – I’m thinking especially of some early scenes in the Faraway Downs sequence – where Luhrmann’s former brilliance just about shines through. It’s hardly great, but it’s reasonable enough entertainment for ninety minutes – the kind of thing that would pass a lazy Sunday afternoon and be forgotten by the next day.

But wait! There’s more! Over an hour more, as it turns out, for once the film reaches this logical conclusion it just inexplicably starts again and keeps going on and on, bringing in the Japanese attack on Darwin and the forced deportation of half-caste children in a desperate effort for the film to justify its “epic” tag. Structurally, this puts the whole film out of balance – it feels like a half-decent film and its train-wreck, self-consciously “dark” sequel crammed into one movie. None of this latter part works well – narratively, it comes across as a series of increasingly outlandish coincidences and improbable circumstances, never gelling into anything coherent. The dramatic scenes are spectacularly mishandled and never steer far from the most hackneyed of cliches – most cringe-inducing is David Wenham’s comic-book caricature snarling baddie, a character who simply has no place in anything with even the remotest pretension to seriousness. The climactic Japanese attack, meanwhile, comes across as a third-rate, one-tenth-budget pastiche of Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001). Now when did I ever think I would be comparing Luhrmann unfavourably to Michael Bay?

Luhrmann has entirely jettisoned the rapid-cutting, frenetic montage style that was one of the most distinctive in contemporary cinema. The problem is that there’s nothing new to replace it, and all we get is a glossy, expensive-looking no-style, all soft focus, tourist-ad landscape shots and lingering sunsets. It’s artless, frequently clumsy and lacking in any substance. The landscapes look pretty enough but there isn’t even a hint of the eerie, spiritual majesty the Australian landscape acquires in, say, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1976), or even John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), while there’s none of the weight or gravitas of the epic to replace Luhrmann’s usual levity and energy. More than anything, Australia is stylistically bland and entirely dull, which is the last thing anyone could have said of Luhrmann’s earlier filmography.

Where the suffocating blanket of dullness lifts momentarily, all that we glimpse is confusion. There are moments where the landscapes and backdrops are so blatantly artificial that they almost seem an intentional pastiche of the Golden Age of Hollywood studio epics that the film so desperately wants to be. This is reflected in the film as a whole, which occasionally ramps up the camp and suggests an entertaining, kitschy pastiche of the classical Hollywood epic struggling to get through. Now that’s a film that Luhrmann could have made great. It could have been the most joyous, grin-inducing film of the year.  Instead we have a schizophrenic film that constantly feels unsure of itself – too scared to tip itself all the way into camp, too ridiculous and fake to muster any real drama or emotion, it walks a barren middle ground where it’s neither one thing nor the other, just two and a half very, very long hours of grand, loud, bombastic, tedious, hollow nothing.

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Hi.

It’s been a while since my last post on here, for which I have no excuse apart from the old chestnut that other commitments/interests and life in general kind of got in the way. November disappeared in its entirety into the maw of a CELTA English-teaching course, December was taken up with screenwriting duties and festive preparations and, well, here we are.

I do intend to make posting here at least semi-regular (call it a slightly early New Year’s resolution) so, if anyone’s still checking in, I hope your patience will be amply rewarded.

I also want to take this opportunity to plug the newly-launched Schlock Magazine. It’s a WordPress-based monthly ezine featuring original fiction with a strongly pulp bias (if you’re not even slightly into horror, fantasy or sci-fi, it’s probably not for you.) It’s edited by my good friend Teodor Reljic, and (to declare my interest) the first issue, published this month, features (among many other excellent contributions) the first part of a story by yours truly.

Please do give it a look.