Nepali Times
Critical Cinema
Eastern Western


Australia Dir.Baz Luhrmann Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, David Gulpilil, Brandon Walters PG-13, 2 hr. 45 min.
There's always been something essentially Bollywood to Baz Luhrmann's work, most notably in Moulin Rouge! with its plainly acknowledged inspiration from Indian cinema. But it isn't simply the song-and-dance routine and the accompanying extravaganza. It's something that permeated the entire aesthetic of his films, a misty sheen of romance, an embrace of melodrama and the logic of the narrative. It's a kind of aesthetic that critics love to hate, the moan-inducing corniness, the requisite tear-stained emotions, the loud caricatures for characters.

With Australia, his latest work, albeit without much singing and dancing, it seems he hasn't left Bollywood yet. If anything, the film will seem comfortably familiar to any viewer of Hindi films. At a sprawling 2 hour 45 minutes, you have that similar format of two (or three) movies in one, post- and pre- intermission?a veritable cocktail of genres with generous shots of comedy, drama, romance and tragedy in the mix.

In fact, with the gratuitous displays of masculine physique on the part of Hugh Jackman reminiscent of Hrithik Roshan's flexing and Nicole Kidman's frequent costume changes, Australia truly brings to mind a grand Bollywood epic. What's more, in admirable form, the leads, much like their Indian counterparts, shine in their complete commitment to their characters, regardless of what over-sentimental line the script commands, what bouts of over-acting the director demands. Indeed, it is Baz Lurhmann's full and unabashed dedication to his hyperbolic style with its awesome vistas, jumbo-sized drama and histrionic emotions that literally overwhelms any criteria of taste or standards of moderation. There's a saturation point of sensory and emotional overload that transforms the critic's eye-rolling to eye-watering.

Set in Australia at the start of the Second World War, the plot moves from Western to romance and is finally a war flick. In a romping Tim Burton style introduction ?comic, costumed and brisk?Lady Ashley, a trim, prim Kidman, pluckily travels to Australia to confront her husband and is met by his uncouth cattlehand 'Drover,' played by Jackman. There's an immediate mutual antagonism that precedes their inevitable attraction (much like in most Bollywood romances). A murder puts Lord Ashley to rest, and allows Kidman to romance in the outback while she imprudently decides to challenge the delightfully charming villain King Carney and his crony, a seething Fletcher (Wenham in a sympathetic performance).

A Western set in Australia is surprisingly palatable. The genre has always been about the frontier, the contradictory ambivalence and draw towards both civilization and the wild. Set in America, the western becomes a kind of parody of itself. But the Australian landscape still retains that quality of wilderness, at least in the imagination, that long since seems unimaginable in America. Those tensions coalesce around a make-shift family unit of Lady Ashley, Drover and Nullah, a mixed race boy whom the pair adopts.

There's a confused and contradictory political dimension as Luhrmann tacks on and tackles Australia's ugly legacy of racism. On the one hand Lady Ashley appears aghast at the missionary effort to steal children from their aboriginal mothers, yet she hampers her young charge from exploring his own culture. But somehow, the film is all the better for it; awkward and earnest, those historical questions and moral dimensions float unanswered outside the scope of the epic romance. It belies a certain commitment?and I mean this as a compliment?not to let cerebral concerns or good storytelling get in the way of schmaltzy fun or emotional impact.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)