Last night, I dragged my friend “A” out to see the premiere of Australia in Alice. (This was partly a Be Nice to Mothers & Get Them Out of the House gesture and partly because I thought she might be the only of my friends trashy enough to see something with Huge Action in it.) The film was screened to a fairly Alice-style heterogenous audience. An Aboriginal family sat in the row in front of us, and some Mormons in the row behind (I saw the glow of white shirts and name-tags in the darkness). There was chortling, sniggering, gasping, groaning, etc, throughout the length of the film.
What can I say about Australia? In short (if it's possible): an Aboriginal boy finds himself adopted by possibly the most annoying Australian actress of all time who attempts to protect him against the Forces of Antagonism represented in the main by a cattle-thieving David Wenham (much more handsome as a baddie than a gourmet-cooking SNAG) who makes various attempts to frame the boy's grandfather as a murderer, send the boy to the mission, and so forth. Our Nic realises she is her own antagonist (spoiler alert) and that she must release the boy to Go Walkabout and Learn the Ways of his People. Basically, like Jedda, but less tragic.
Set in the assimilationist period, Australia depicts the various forms of racism that besiege Aboriginal people in the Territory (then and now), especially the impact of the policy of removing children of mixed descent from their parents. Within this milieu, the station is depicted as a potential haven in a heartless world for Aboriginal people - if in the right hands.
On another level, the station is all about nation-building. In a journey not dissimilar to Jean Paget's in A Town Like Alice, Our Nic travels from the Old Country to discover that Australia is a Land of Opportunity in which one can blur class divisions by joining forces with a Drover to make portions of it ripe for colonial and entrepreneurial endeavours. Ultimately, Our Nic proves herself to be a bonza sheila, losing her uptight, aristocratic trappings to become windswept, sweaty and More Able with Horses.
These dual narratives (the Stolen Generations story and the white nation-building/identity quest) are a problem for the film, which is long, unwieldy and seems to have about five acts rather than the standard three. Australia should maybe have ended when Our Nic Got Her Man, but it keeps on going as David Wenham continues to pop up in various guises of evil. One feels like crying out: “Die Diver Dan, die!” after a while. The film could have been tighter if one rather both the narratives were fully fleshed.
Australia is highly-stylised to the extent that style wins out over content (not unlike Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet). The cinematography evokes the Ektachrome look of the 1940s (as seen in the National Geographic, etc). This is indeed one of the film's main pleasures, although the need for almost every character or scene to be “iconic” in some way grates after a while.
It also features many major scenic locations - as in Jedda, the characters cover a remarkable breadth of country, ranging from Darwin to Kununnurra to Purnululu to Kakadu. NT Tourism can certainly not be unpleased that Luhrmann has decided to make such a lavish promotional clip of the Territory.
The highly stylised nature of the film works against it developing much emotional traction. While Brandon Walter is beguiling as Nullah, his personal drama seems not exactly trivialised but probably not much more hard core than anything you'd see on afternoon children's television. On the other hand, this level is probably about right for exposing broader audiences to the stolen generation themes, as in Rabbit Proof Fence.
Our Nic's character is fairly unendearing for the most part, not least because it's played by Our Nic with a bunged-on British accent and an annoying girlie strut. (She occasionally even does the Strange Staring Thing she did as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.)
Hugh the Man is possibly one of the more rounded male outback characters to appear in Australian film (I don't think I heard him say “bonza” once, either, though there were a few “crikeys”). There is a bizarre interlude where he appears cleanly shaven, wearing a white dinner suit reminiscent of Peter Allen's get-up while singing “I still call Australia home” and Reveals Himself to be the Worthy Romantic Hero We All Know Him to Be. (There is also a kind of soaping scene like, but not as good as, the Mr Darcy pond scene in Pride and Prejudice.)
David Gulpilil spends a remarkable amount of time standing on one leg (something surely rivalled only by B K Iyengar), not unlike various garden gnomes and Australiana souvenir artwork of a more unsound period (did Aboriginal men ever really do this?)
While the film is generally sympathetic to Aboriginal characters and highlights some of the racism of the period, some of the Aboriginal characterisation seems shallow at times, tending towards the romanticised, noble savage end of the spectrum. Whites are shown as capable of both good and evil, though never mind, there always is someone worse than us and those people would be Asian. The Japanese represent the face of unremitting evil and the threat of Australia's Pacific Rim location in the bombing of Darwin sequence.
Australia yearns to be epic story-telling, not unlike Gone with the Wind with its plantation era race relations backdrop, but I fear the end-result is melodrama. It yearns, moreover, to be epic story-telling that is commercially viable in an Americanised market.
Australia opens with Nullah telling us, in terms that seem a strange conflation of the universal myth theories espoused by film-writing pundits like Robert McKee and the romantic philosophy of Bruce Chatwin's Songlines, that there's nothing more important than “story”. Originally, the source of story for the young boy is his grandfather, “King George”. But as the narrative progresses, “King George's” influence diminishes, not least because Our Nic (perhaps a little oddly for an aristocratic English woman) teaches Nullah a few bars of “Somewhere over the rainbow”. This is not by chance: Americanised audiences would of course need a “universal” story that they recognise. The instances of Nullah singing in language become less frequent as he begins to play “Somewhere over the rainbow” on a harmonica in times of need. Although Nullah returns to country with “King George” at the film's end, he shows himself to be marked not only by British colonisation but also by American globalisation. It is perhaps a parable of the Australian film industry: the bastard, half-caste nation caught between wanting to have its own “native” film industry and to be marketable to mass, Americanised cinema audiences.