I like it. I don’t love it.
And I see why it is not getting the word of mouth it deserves.
My take on the film is primarily from a broad story perspective. I don’t go into dialogue, performance, SFX etc. because I believe they are secondary and ultimately not decisive for the success of the film.
PUSHING IT: ACT STRUCTURE
In my view, Luhrman and Beattie have knowingly taken a few risks. The main one is the four-act structure. Here I mean: four acts according to the traditional three-act model. Not three acts with the second cut in two.
Both the drover and Sarah have a clear four-act journey. Their first objective is to get the cattle to Darwin, which spans most of the film. As a ‘road movie’, it works fabulously to my taste and it is in the second act that the film has its best moments, including some instant-classic scenes such as the cattle stampede threatening Nulla.
Ironically, the expectation of a traditional three-act structure is reinforced by the death of Flynn, perfectly halfway Act Two.
Then, when they reach Darwin and succeed in their objective, a new objective is set for the next act: the return to Faraway Downs. Here is where the structure begins to collapse. Where we had an instinctive feeling we were moving towards the end of the movie, we have exactly one more hour to go.
Act Three climaxes in the realisation that Nulla is in danger and drover decides to save him. The final act is the rescue of Nulla.
UNDERESTIMATED: POINT OF VIEW
The only other major potential problem is the multiple point of view (POV). Each POV has a serious problem.
The film is told through Nullah, Sarah and Drover.
Nullah’s story is that of the stolen generation: he is trying to stay out of the hands of those who want to take him away from his community.
This story is scattered across the movie and it doesn’t really have the power to span the entire film, to keep the three hours together. When we are in Nullah’s POV though, we all empathise with him because we understand this is a struggle for freedom, a basic human instinct. When sifting through the hundreds of promotional photo’s on australiamovie.net, the photo above is the only one I could find of Nullah. It says a lot about how important the filmmakers see this character and his story.
Sarah’s journey does a better job in tying the movie together, for at least three acts. In order to save her cattle station, she and the drover must undertake an epic cattle drive to Darwin. On the way, she falls in love with him. We empathise with Sarah, because we understand her journey, too. Because of the love journey, she is probably the most powerful POV in the movie. Everybody accepts her falling in love with the drover as he represents masculinity, freedom, her future.
Drover’s POV is more problematic. He wants to help Sarah, then falls in love with her. Here is the problem. Sarah Ashley is portrayed as a completely undesirable female. She is uptight, annyoing and sometimes plain naive. Who would desire such a woman, when you can get much better? I don’t believe many audience members would therefore identify with the Drover.
Looking at the three options, Sarah is the most likely character to identify with. After all, Hugh is a desirable male! I would like to see a breakdown of the demographics in terms of audience reception for Australia. It wouldn’t come as a big surprise if it turns out to be a chic flic.
Like most other good but not great movies, if you drill down you’ll find a lot of issues that keep you from fully participating.
Towards the end of the movie, I was getting totally annoyed by the mind-numbing repetition of the WIZARD OF OZ theme “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. The original score of Australia is strong enough, there was no need to revert to this blatant recycling. A film’s identity gets lost when it has to rely on references to other movies to get a point across.
Finally, I found the visual style gorgeous until the arrival in Darwin, where things got completely out of control. Effects became totally in-your-face, unnecessary and plain badly executed. Luhrman had almost created a timeless classic piece of cinema, but in the last two acts he blows it.
That said, I enjoyed AUSTRALIA. The word of warning about its length did help me, as I gave it the time and space it needed.
And about the fascinating heated discussions after posting an article from the SMH and one from The Guardian on my Facebook page and Jason Gordon’s article on the Story Department Group at the end of last year, I would like to say the following: I am a Belgian and I look at Australia’s history with a certain level of neutrality. I find it hypocritical of a nation to say sorry but continue to celebrate Australia Day on 26 January. But I don’t have a desire to see social, political and historical issues resolved in the cinema.
In my view, despite its failure to appeal to the mass audience, AUSTRALIA is still one of the most entertaining Australian films of the decade.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.