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The (Epistolary) Movie Review: 'Australia'

For the love of God, Baz Luhrmann, stop giving your characters tuberculosis!

Dear Baz Luhrmann,

You have a problem, and the first step toward solving it is recognizing it: Despite your manifest gifts as a filmmaker, you can’t do tragedy. And you need to stop trying.

Your 1992 debut, Strictly Ballroom, was an utter delight, a sprightly mélange of comedy and romance, dancing and music, attractive stars and cartoonish (but not irredeemable) villains. Since then, I fear, you’ve gotten badly off-track. We can set aside 1996’s Romeo+Juliet for the moment, because I confess I have never made it through the film despite multiple attempts. Perhaps it’s a complete misfire, or a matter of taste, or I have some rare neurological ailment. But within ten minutes of beginning the movie I develop a splitting headache that does not recede until I turn it off.

Your 2001 opus Moulin Rouge! is another matter. Lush, giddy, crammed to the gills with cleverly arranged pop ditties, it should have been a boffo entertainment. But for some incomprehensible reason, you decided that this dizzy daydream ought to be a tragedy. Allow me to explain something: There are movies in which people sing songs by Elton John and Madonna and Queen and Paul McCartney. And there are movies in which the heroine dies of tuberculosis. The Venn diagram of these two categories should not show any overlap, but thanks to Moulin Rouge! it does.

Your Broadway staging of La boheme in 2003 was a more limited mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. It’s not that it was bad; it just wasn’t particularly good. I saw it within a few months of a vastly less hyped production of the opera at the Kennedy Center, and the latter was considerably stronger. Again, tragedy. Again, tuberculosis. I trust you see the emerging pattern.

Which brings us to Australia. As in all your films, there are a lot of likable elements (as in most of them, often too many at once). There’s humor and action and romance and loopy camera work and nostalgic nods to the popular music and cinema of the past. (“Oz” being a common nickname for Australia, we get to hear “Over the Rainbow” a lot.) But what might have worked as a buoyant throwback adventure yarn is instead weighted down with historical baggage, racial sermonizing, and, yes, frequent eruptions of tragedy.

One might imagine that in casting Nicole Kidman, one of the globe’s most famous Aussies, in a movie titled Australia, you’d actually let her be, you know, Australian. No such luck. Her character’s name, Lady Sarah Ashley, tells us pretty much everything we need to know. The first time we see the prim English lady she is striding across the Australian scrub as stiffly as a mime doing “schoolmarm.” The only way the caricature could’ve been more broad is if you’d cast a man in drag.

Sarah has travelled from England to her husband’s cattle ranch in the barren Northern Territory because she expects to find him engaged in some southern hemisphere hanky panky. Instead she finds him dead, run through by what is presumed to be an aborigine’s spear. Sarah decides to get the ranch back on its feet herself, which becomes quite a bit harder after she fires the cruel ranch manager, Fletcher (David Wenham), for beating a sweet, mixed-race boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who lives on the property.

Enter Drover, which is the profession of Hugh Jackman’s character and the only name we ever get for him. As coarse and lovable as Sarah is proper and brittle, he is eventually persuaded to help her drive 1,500 cattle to the territorial capital of Darwin to raise the money to save the ranch. Opposites attract, of course, and gradually cease to be opposites: Just like Kidman’s Ada in Cold Mountain, Sarah finds that beneath her formal manners is a Strong Ranch Woman bursting to get out. (Is it just me, or has Kidman spent a fair portion of her career auditioning for the lead in a remake of Gone with the Wind?) Drover, for his part, eventually shaves his scruffy beard and trades dusty fedora for dinner jacket, completing the metamorphosis from Indiana Jones to James Bond.

There’s a hokey charm to all this, Baz, but you just have to muck it up by striving for “epicness.” Rather than settle for an upscale City Slickers Down Under, you shoot for Dances with Wallabies, and offer an extended, and unnecessary, lesson in the Cruelties Inflicted by White Men on Those with Dark Skin. The first tragic death rolls in at around the 45-minute mark, and it’s not the last. (At least the demise of Drover’s aborigine wife took place before the events of the film, so we didn’t have to watch her cough life away as she died of--yes, amazingly it’s true--tuberculosis.) It almost seems that you’re intent on proving yourself the opposite of fellow director Danny Boyle: Where he demonstrated, in Slumdog Millionaire, an ability to find cinematic joy in the direst of circumstances, you’re committed to spoiling your frothy entertainments with bitter doses of misfortune.

Even after the story seems happily concluded, a bit before the two-hour mark, you manage to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. All obstacles have been overcome, the principals are lovingly united, and Nullah has declared, in the pidgin English of which we have by this point become so very tired, “Everybody get what they want. Everybody happy.” There’s even a Christmas celebration! Leave it to you to cue up a new round of villainous machinations, a resurgence of romantic friction, and, oh yes, World War II, as the Japanese Navy stops by to make Darwin a post-Pearl-Harbor digestif. One scattered, frustrating Western down, one scattered, frustrating war movie to go.

For your own sake, and that of your viewers, this has to stop. You’re a showman, Baz, so give us a show. Find something lighter on which to lavish your talents, something in which the singing is not punctuated by gunfire and tears. It doesn’t have to be without setback or incident. There can be stumbles and misunderstandings and broken hearts and broken dishes. But no more tragic deaths. No more lessons about racism. And please, please, please: No more tuberculosis.


Chris Orr

Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.