Running time 165 minutes
Written by Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown, David Wenham
Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, from his own original story, and a script written by Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan, frames its epic narrative at the outset with a part-Aboriginal, part-Caucasian, Sabu-like little boy named Nullah (played by 11-year-old Brandon Walters, who battled leukemia when he was 6-years-old and survived, and who has had no prior acting experience). It is through Nullah’s bedazzled eyes that we get an impressionistic glimpse of British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) as she arrives in Darwin, Australia, on her way to her husband’s cattle ranch in the Faraway, an even more remote part of the country, itself the Faraway of Faraways to the world.
Lady Sarah has come from England because she suspects her husband is having an affair while supposedly looking after his business holdings. What Sarah doesn’t know is that her husband has already been murdered, and that Nullah has seen his corpse in a river. It is no accident that Nullah plays such a large part in the picture. Until 1973, we are told, half-caste children like Nullah were taken from their families and placed in religious schools where they remained, forbidden to live with either Aborigines or with the white population. These victims of Australian racial discrimination came to be known as the “Stolen Generation.” Somehow, Nullah has evaded the authorities, and together with his mother joins with Lady Sarah and her “Drover,” played by Hugh Jackman as a gruff man of action, who is in some ways as much an outcast as Nullah. It seems that the Drover cut himself off from Australian society by first marrying an Aborigine, and then watching her die from tuberculosis because no Australian hospital would treat her.
I mention all these belatedly enlightened elements in the narrative because they are always lurking in the background of the initially uneasy romantic drama that eventually bursts into the flames of a fully requited passion uniting Sarah and her Drover. The cattle drives are almost as spectacular as those in Howard Hawk’s Red River 60 years ago. Now, as then, there is a wild stampede, but this time, Nullah is on hand with some mystical power he has absorbed from his witch-doctor mentor, King George (David Gulpilil), to stare the cattle back from going off a cliff. It is indeed a sight to behold, if not entirely to believe.
For her part, Lady Sarah has imperiously dismissed her foreman Neil Fletcher (David Wenhan) and his entire crew for conspiring with her powerful cattle business rival, King Carney (Bryan Brown). And Fletcher has sought revenge, first by torching her cattle into stampeding, and later by trying unsuccessfully to get Carney’s cattle to market before hers.
As fate would have it, Lady Sarah, the Drover and Nullah are temporarily separated when the Japanese Imperial Fleet that bombed Pearl Harbor makes an even more devastating attack on Darwin, forcing the population to flee south. It is at this point that I felt the narrative had become somewhat overloaded with too many criss-crossing themes.
Indeed, for a time I was under the impression that one of the major characters had perished amid all the carnage. Not to worry. All three of the protagonists survive to share a reasonably happy ending, far, Faraway from the tumult of Darwin.
There is much talk in the film about Nullah having to go on “walkabout” with King George in order for Nullah to become a man. All I could think of was a long-ago very pretty top Aboriginal tennis player named Evonne Goolagong, whose only weakness was a frequent loss of concentration attributed by sports writers to her “walkabout.” It is, as the French say, if not to laugh, at least to smile.
Australia is clearly a labor of love, and a matter of national pride. It is also a bit of a mess, and the product of many last-minute decisions on the plot, as described in Peter Sanders’ fascinating article on the making and marketing of the film in The Wall Street Journal of Nov. 19, 2008. Finally, I must confess that I might have been harder on Mr. Luhrmann’s film if I had not remained entranced by Ms. Kidman ever since I first saw her in Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm in 1989; in my opinion, she has lost none of her luster in the 20 years since.