Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Australia" from Fox: An epic "western" paying tribute to several classic films


The epic film this fall from 20th Century Fox, "Australia", directed by Baz Luhrmann with an original story by him and some others, surely pays homage to a number of other films and genres. It is in a sense a “modern Australian western” but it has elements of “Giant”, “Gone with the Wind”, “Pearl Harbor” and even Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave”. And the writing reflects the style of 50s epic storytelling, creating novel situations with characters in historical circumstances that have since become obscure to most people. That is the job of the movies, to take you into another world, and this movie does that.

“Faraway Downs”, the ranch which English noblewoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) takes over after having discovered her husband’s mysterious tragedy upon her arrival (she originally wanted him to come back to Britain), reminds one of “Drohega” from “The Thorn Birds” even if it is more run down at first. Her counterpart and eventual lover Drover (Hugh Jackman) is a much better person than Rhett Butler and much more dynamic than Ashley Wilkes, so the comparison to GWTW doesn’t quite match (even if one of the kissing scenes is shot exactly the same). The stampede scene is your basic epic western filmmaking of a half century ago, and quite cleverly plotted. (The point of the cattle drive was originally to make enough money off of Australia to retire in England, but that will change.) After the couple’s relationship cements in Darwin, the film goes through a summary rhapsodic sequence simulating and intermission. I think that a formal Intermission would really work better (the film is 165 minutes). The second half brings the Japs into the War with the 1942 Darwin bombing, and links together the plot with the Walkabout of the aborigine boy, and also brings in all the prejudicial and exploitive racial issues that parallel our own past in the United States.

Drover has a great line early in the movie, "The one thing any man owns is his own story." That rings true for me.

The air raid scenes look a little more artificial than in some comparable films (like Pearl Harbor).

The scenery in the film is simply awesome, with enormous use of deep reds and other shades of color. Most of the topography really does exist in the area, extending into Western Australia. A link (“Outback Information”) that describes the filming and locations is here.

I think of Australia as a geographical parallel universe to the USA, with a cosmopolitan East, a low mountain range in the East (in Australia up to about 7500 feet), and a “Midwest” and a desert West, but the towering mountains of the US are missing, although there are many interesting canyons and smaller formations like those in the American Southwest, but even more desolate.

The script mentions “in the Dry” and “In the Wet”, the latter of which the title of a 1953 novel by Nevil Shute which I read as a senior in high school for a book report (Shute, a British novelist and engineer, often wrote about Australia and other Commonwealth dominions). I recall the racial issues in the Shute novel, which told a "futuristic" story of a quadroon pilot, as I recall.

The music, while including a song by Elton John, used an arrangement of a Bach cantata quite a bit, and included a moving segment from Sir Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" in a moving sequence at the end. Still, I prefer that the closing passages from a work like this be included in the soundtrack.

I recall one other personal connection to Australia. After my only "other" layoff, in 1971, I considered looking for work in Australia and got quite a bit of information in the mail, before getting a Navy Department job and moving on with my career, to be stable for thirty years.

Nicole Kidman told Barbara Walters on ABC's "The View" that the director worked with several possible beginnings and several endings (they may appear on the DVD eventually) before settling on the theatrical script. The movie developed from "concept" more than from a typical spec script. Even so, the film demonstrates how one develops a compelling story with material and situations whose priorities may be unfamiliar to most moviegoers.

I saw the film on a large flat screen (2.35:1) in a Regal Cinemas, on Thanksgiving night to a half full auditorium. That particular theater offers both curved and flat screens in four different large auditoriums. I think a film like this looks best on a slightly curved screen.

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