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Movie Tuesday: Australia (PG-13)

Bloomin’ Onion
The ringmaster of Moulin Rouge! peels the layers of Australia

Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director who made his mark with the flamboyant visuals and bohemian idealism of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (that’s right, there’s an exclamation point), sets down the chintz and polishes up the saddles for Australia, his take on “classic romantic epic.” Luhrmann’s movies are all grand gestures and trade exclusively in upper-case themes: Truth, Beauty, Love, What Have You. This, too, is a capital affair, with heaping helpings of Adventure and Romance promised, in writing, in the opening frames. Grander still, it is also a story about Stories—how ordinary people take control of their identities and destinies by claiming authorship of their own lives.

Australia is told to us by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a young aboriginal boy on the cusp of manhood but unsure of his place in the world. The child of a black mother and an absent white father, Nullah is a second-class citizen on both sides of a bitter racial divide—without a community and, worse, without a story. His narration, then, is an act of self-creation, and it evokes the aboriginal Ancestors whose wandering songs brought the world into being.

Nullah’s burgeoning identity soon becomes intertwined with those of our romantic—sorry, Romantic—leads. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, fair, powdered [ed: You forgot Botoxed]) is a huffy British heiress who has come to Australia’s dusty Northern Territory to survey the remote cattle ranch that is the source of her family’s dwindling wealth. Her guide into the interior is a melancholic outback cowboy known only as the Drover (Hugh Jackman, tan, sweaty [ed: You forgot hot]). Horns lock, sparks fly, other metaphors ensue. You get the picture. Fated accident unites the inevitable couple with the wandering child and the three of them—through cattle drives and desert crossings, society balls and the privations of war—slowly form a makeshift family.

The rest, somewhat tediously, is History—wide swaths of social and political import that drive, and at times bog down, our promised Adventures. The action begins in the late days of 1939, and the World War looms and then descends on the players. More insidious and just as damaging, though, are the Australian government’s policies of forced assimilation of aboriginal peoples, the wounds of which (we read in a postscript) have not fully healed.

On top of it all Luhrmann drapes layers of Technicolor allusion to two classics of cinematic mythology, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (both released in ’39). Touchingly, Lady Sarah regales Nullah with a garbled rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and inspires him with tales of casual magic and dream fulfillment that jell with familiar folklore. The ancient era when the Ancestors sang Australia into existence is called The Dreaming. This film may be Luhrmann’s bid to bind modern society—and its moviehouse Dreamings—to this ancient tradition.

Racial prejudice is an inescapable part of the story, and characters—always clearly marked as evil or ignorant—make use various derogatory terms for aboriginal blacks. (A wartime slang term for the Japanese is also heard.) Most of the cursing is quaintly foreign—bloody, crikey and whatnot—though there is one f-word, uttered in mournful despair. Animals don’t fare well—a dog and a kangaroo are shot, a few head of cattle fall off a cliff, and a horse running at a full gallop gruesomely breaks a leg. An unfortunate man is caught in a cattle stampede and dies of his wounds. We see two characters drown, and both scenes are fairly upsetting to watch. Torpedoes and bombs fall; their fatal power is clearly understood but not explicitly shown. Gunshots are also seen and heard, though bloody wounds are seldom shown. Oh, and one character gets a well-deserved spear to the chest (enjoy the over-the-top death bellow).

Those who are disappointed when Hugh Jackman wears shirts will enjoy this movie; he glistens bare-chested in several scenes [ed: Yaaaaaaay!]. Jackman and Kidman share a rainy kiss, and a moderately steamy roll in the hay ensues—no nudity per se, only patches of carefully revealed skin.  An aboriginal elder walks about in loincloth and little else, and we catch a bit of his naked rear from time to time.

At a November 26th screening, in the wild hinterlands of Rocky Mount, NC, the only two previews were for Marley & Me (PG), about a misbehaving dog, and Bride Wars (not yet rated), about misbehaving brides.

Jared Peterson
, after the hero in this week’s film, is thinking he might seem more mysterious if he began introducing himself to women as, simply, The Features Writer. I’ll let you know how it goes at http:proweirdo.blogspot.com.

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