'Australia': The first L.A. screening
Nothing is sweeter than seeing a movie on the Fox lot at the Darryl Zanuck Theater, its vast expanse allowing your imagination to run wild, conjuring up all the hits and flops that have unspooled there, inflaming the ego or crushing the spirit of generations of studio executives. It wasn't quite so glamorous at 9:30 this morning, waiting for the first big screening of Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" to begin. Much of the audience was made up of lowly media types and beleaguered critics, so most of the small-talk before hand focused on the low-level depression that hovers like a dark cloud, with each new week bringing news of more friends or colleagues who've either lost their jobs or are worried about the next round of layoffs at our various publications.
I was hoping Baz's movie would serve as a much-needed escape. I was not disappointed. I'll leave the reviews to the critics--you can read another mixed notice from Australia here--but after experiencing such an ambitious piece of work, it's impossible to refrain from making some observations.
It's pretty obvious that "Australia" works best if you can imagine it as a musical. It brims with all sorts of grand melodrama and oversize emotion that would feel, well, hopelessly cornball if you're not willing to embrace the material with the same childlike abandon you felt when you first saw "Brigadoon" or "Singin' in the Rain." In Luhrmann's hands, even the desolate outback, the main setting for the film, feels like a giant painted-desert studio set. Watching a thrilling cattle drive that dominates the earlier part of the 165-minute film, you feel like you're watching a western directed by Vincente Minnelli, with all the dirt and dust accompanied by soaring tracking shots, a booming musical score and blood-red sunsets. It is a film filled with both extravagant artifice and gripping social commentary--one of the key subplots involves an Aboriginal boy in danger of being taken from his home and forcibly thrown into government care. Talking to some viewers afterward, it was clear their reaction were colored by how much they could handle the clash between those two sensibilities.
As with all Luhrmann movies, "Australia" operates on several different layers, the most obvious being the fact that it is a story about storytelling, or as Hugh Jackman says early in the picture: "The only thing you can own is your story--you just hope that it's a good one." Luhrmann weaves his postmodernist style with the simplicity of Aboriginal life, where having a story is a huge part of their spiritual world. "Australia" also has a movie within the movie, "The Wizard of Oz," the big hit of the day, which is seen playing at a Darwin movie house, with Oz's fantasy world, spirit of adventure and yearning for home serving as a commentary on "Australia's" own narrative.
The movie's story is unabashedly old-fashioned, seemingly cobbled together from a hundred other movies. Nicole Kidman is a transplanted English aristocrat who takes over her husband's spread in the Northern Territory. Hugh Jackman is a rough-hewn drover, a cattle driver who loves the freedom of the open range. Brandon Walters plays the young Aboriginal boy who develops an intense bond with both Kidman and Jackman. Bryan Brown is the villain of the piece, a ruthless cattle baron who'll stop at nothing to wrest away Kidman's land. If it sounds a bit cliched, it is. In fact, the movie is full of cliches, from the kindly drunk to the thuggish ranch hand to the uptight city slicker to the gruff, lone-wolf hero.
If you've seen a lot of John Ford westerns, you'll feel right at home. The bad guys do what all bad guys do on cattle drives--they stampede the cattle and poison the water hole. At night, people sing around the campfire and volunteer hidden yearning after they've had too much to drink. On the other hand, like Ford, Luhrmann uses these conventions to capture the bigger, more mythical sweep of his country's history. Even if the movie often treads on too familiar ground, you feel as if you're in the hands of a powerful storyteller, someone intent on finding the humanity and the healing power in retracing his country's history. "Australia" certainly reminds us that Luhrmann is a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. "Australia" is ambitious, perhaps too ambitious for its own good, but you'd never accuse its director of resting on his laurels.
Photo of Baz Lurhmann by Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times