The Flick Chicks

Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Australia

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Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
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If you’re looking for a film that’s as big and wild as its title, Australia may just be your “cuppa tea, mate.”  With its several storylines, panoramic red desert landscapes, and numerous indigenous wonders, there’s plenty to see and experience both within the plot and outside of it.  The year is 1939 and the world is perched on the edge of World War II.

 

That’s one story; meanwhile…

 

A child’s intermittent narration fills us in on the current state of affairs.  Nullah (Brandon Walters) is what’s known as a half-caste, or “creamy”, of mixed-race origin; half indigenous aboriginal, half white.  Nullah belongs to Australia’s “lost generation” of bi-racial children removed from aboriginal homes and sent to orphanages to have the native influence erased from their upbringing and receive training as domestic servants.

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State sanctioned kidnappings of these children were common and Nullah hides in a water tank whenever officials visit the ranch where his mother works, a place called Faraway Downs.

 

That’s another story; meanwhile…

 

Prissy British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) arrives in Queensland, Australia to visit her husband’s failing cattle station, Faraway Downs, sell it, and bring him back to England. Hopelessly out of her element in the rugged territory, Lady Sarah gets exposed to drunken revelry, brutal desert temperatures and indelicate conversations.  She spends an inordinate amount of time being outraged by her surroundings until the sobering news of her husband’s murder forces her to show her mettle.

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After witnessing the cattle station foreman, Fletcher (David Wenham), abuse his aboriginal mistress (Ursula Yovich) and Nullah, their son, Lady Sarah fires the brutal overseer, which sends him scurrying off to join forces with rival cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown).  Carney and Fletcher form an evil team, willing to go to deadly lengths to ensure their beef superiority against the new inexperienced upstart who has the nerve to be a woman.  Authorities are dispatched to Faraway Downs to find the half-caste child and Nullah’s mother dies trying to hide him from them.

 

To console him, Lady Ashley tells him the story of The Wizard of Oz and introduces him to the song “Over the Rainbow”; these figure prominently in the film’s storyline, Australia being the new and wondrous land, and the wistful song its hope for a better day.

 

“Mrs. Boss”, as Nullah calls her, becomes determined to rescue Faraway Downs by driving 1,500 head of cattle across the Northern Territory to the port city of Darwin. To do that, she enlists the aid of Drover (Hugh Jackman), a ruggedly handsome cowboy, cattle “drover” and wild horse wrangler.

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Aided by a booze-soaked accountant and assorted household servants, the rag-tag bunch sets out to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of crossing a vast Australian outback with an expansive herd of cattle, a child, several inexperienced drovers and the very proper Lady Sarah.

 

A humorous anomaly in the wilderness, Lady Sarah tries to maintain a modicum of propriety while Drover shows off his pectoral muscles and sexy physique while bathing in a river.  What you think will happen, does.

 

That’s yet another story; meanwhile…

 

Nullah, is the grandson of a tribal elder called King George, and forms a nuclear family of sorts with Drover and Lady Sarah (she can’t have children). King George (David Gulpilil), the aboriginal social conscience of the film, insists that Nullah must make the traditional voyage of manhood, called the Walkabout.  King George watches over Nullah from mountain tops and must remain hidden because he is the chief suspect in Lord Ashley’s murder.

 

Lady Sarah’s cattle drive continues, barely surviving a deadly sabotage attempt by Carney’s thugs; although tragedy strikes, the small underdog team perseveres, being presumed dead for awhile. 

When they triumphantly arrive in Darwin, her stock is the first to board the waiting cargo ship, procuring a lucrative sale out from under an enraged Carney.

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Drover and Lady Sarah embrace; smiles abound.  You expect to see the end credits rolling merrily by as Waltzing Matilda plays in the background.  Instead, the film shifts gears into the onset of WWII, loaded with fresh dangers and highlighting the racist aboriginal policies that put children directly in the path of Japanese bomber planes.

 

The newly minted nuclear family breaks apart and tries to find each other again, making for great swells of music in strategic places.  The Aussie bad guys are still on the loose, Nullah get sent to an orphanage on a sitting duck island targeted for bombing, and Lady Ashley is caught in an aerial bombing herself.  Drover’s gone off to enlist and King George is in jail under suspicion of murder.  There’s still a whole lot of story to go.

 

Nicole Kidman plays Lady Ashley almost as a caricature, humorous and stodgy, but with a tough core.  Hugh Jackman is believable as the experienced Drover, an Australian equivalent of a knight in shining armor.

 

Bryan Brown and David Wenham are one-note villains, devoid of kindness and incapable of ambivalence.  David Gulpilil’s King George is as authentically aboriginal and iconic as it gets, bringing an integrity and conscience into the film.  Newcomer Brandon Walters is the heart and soul of the production, guiding the viewer through his life with an innocence that reveals injustice with a poignancy that only he can bring to the story.

Director Baz Luhrmann does not let you forget you’re in Australia.  Various scenes feature kangaroos, boomerangs, didgeridoo-playing, and aboriginal customs (like resting flamingo-like on one leg for long periods of time and Nullah’s yearning for his walkabout initiation).

Cinematographer Mandy Walker makes the most of spectacular Northern Territory landscapes, lensing the deserts and canyons with aesthetic (and romantic) flair.

 

Australia is a big movie as befits a big continent, untamed and exotic where it needs to be, pensive and love-laden in its quieter moments.  Luhrmann captures its quirks as deftly as Nullah catches a careening boomerang, with a keen eye and sure hand. Like Dorothy and Toto, you’ll definitely know that you’re not in Kansas anymore.