Baz Luhrmann has made just four films in 16 years. I haven’t seen Strictly Ballroom, but I think I should. I thought Romeo + Juliet was a very interesting experiment, most of the time. I liked Moulin Rouge quite a bit. Both of those last two were highly experimental and not to everyone’s taste. I expected something like that from this newest film … but what it is, is a very traditional epic historical romance of the sort Hollywood doesn’t make so many of any more. These things used to be a staple, and highly profitable, films likeDr. Zhivago, Cleopatra, From Here to Eternity, and the granddaddy of them all, Gone With the Wind, big stories set against vast backgrounds or huge historical events, but essentially boy/girl stories. When Hollywood does venture into this genre these days, the results can be awesomely profitable (Titanic), or disappointing, artistically or financially (Far and Away, Atonement, Reds). They can take a ton of money to produce, even in these days of monster CGI sets. They spent $130,000,00 on this one.
This is very much like an American western, and except for some old trucks, it might be set in the 1880s. Only in Australia it’s a northern, I guess, as that’s where Darwin is located, a very different climate from the Australia I saw taking the train from Sydney to Perth. They sure got their money’s worth, visually. The Japanese attack on Darwin is pretty amazing (even if they did save a little money by using stock footage from Tora! Tora! Tora!). The Australian outback is stunning in its stark beauty. Much of the action takes place on a vast cattle station (Aussie for ranch) called Faraway Downs, in the years immediately preceding Australia’s entry into the war. Unlike America, Australia was bombed regularly from Japanese carriers (all of which were sunk at the battle of Midway, and good riddance!), but only in the north, where there wasn’t much to hit except Darwin, a town of about 5,000. There are exciting scenes of cattle stampedes.
The other elements … not so good. The chemistry between Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman is okay. But where the story got a little iffy, for me, was in the mix between white and aboriginal culture. I’ve seen good movies that present the world from the aboriginal point of view, and from the white, but they don’t seem to mix too well. We’re asked to accept a lot of magical thinking that just seems out of place in this conventional story of greed, love, and war. I know Luhrman was intent on telling of the “stolen generations,” a shameful time (that stretched right up into the 1970s!) when aboriginal children were legally abducted from their perfectly good families and raised in orphanages or foster homes. The purpose of this policy was to eradicate the black races by breeding them out of existence … and also to provide a steady supply of domestic servants. At least 100,000 aboriginal children were subjected to this horror. This is a big issue among Aussies, with some (including scum like ex-PM John Howard) still refusing to apologize for the atrocity, and I know it’s important to Luhrman, but it’s already been done better in films like Rabbit-Proof Fence. It just seemed to muddle up the story, which got increasingly muddled on its own as we got further into it. The film badly needed a focus, I thought, and one never really emerged.