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Australia: Oz, Not So Wizardly
Posted Nov 26,2008

“There's an old Australian stockman, lying, dying…” begins the song "Tie Me Kangaroo Down," which gained fame around the world back in 1960. The lyrics mix a gritty sense of the outback with a fair bit of silliness. Australia, the new film from director Baz Luhrmann, essentially does the same. People still recognize the song. Some can even sing a few bars. But half a century from now, will audiences remember the film? Probably not.

Australia was clearly meant to be as grand and sweeping as the continent is wide and open. And it does deliver on landscapes. But with a running time of two hours and 45 minutes, the film’s only epic dimension is the endurance it demands from the viewers. Its plot is predictable. The characters are cardboard cutouts. The romance could have been lifted from any bodice ripper. The music swells too obviously. And every possible cliché about the Land Down Under loads it with dead weight. It’s Crocodile Dundee and Rabbit Proof Fence with a dash of Gone with the Wind. (Think of the overwrought Scarlet. And of Atlanta burning, burning, burning.)

This collection of flaws is a great pity, because admirable themes play out through the film—the harshness of life on a cattle station in the middle of nowhere, dust and dryness blessedly relieved by the arrival of the rainy season (known as The Wet), the richness of the native culture, the cruel attitudes and policies directed toward the Aboriginal population, the role of religion in enforcing those policies, and a chapter from World War II that’s little known outside of Australia.

[Spoiler Alert: If you're set on seeing the movie, stop reading now because plot points lie ahead—unless you're concerned that you'll doze off at key points and miss important moments. In that case, read on.]

The film begins with a stockman lying, dying—murdered, actually, as seen by a half-Aboriginal boy named Nullah. The plot revolves around this boy, and his voice breaks in frequently with a cheery, plucky, wise, mystical narrative. He quickly diverts the action to the UK, where the plot gets its wobbly legs.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English rose if ever there was one, receives news of her husband, who has bought a cattle ranch called Faraway Downs in Australia. That just won’t do. The ranch must be sold. And so she’s soon winging her way to Darwin. It’s 1939, and the clouds of war are gathering.

Arriving via Qantas (of course) with her parasol held aloft, Lady Ashley lands in the middle of a cutthroat competition. Both her husband and cattle baron Lesley “King” Carney are trying to sell their herds of beef to the army, and only one can win.

Lady A hitches a ride to the ranch with a brooding hunk of a cattle drover (Hugh Jackman), who hopes to get the job of driving her husband’s livestock to Darwin’s wharf. Near the end of their journey, she inquires, “How long before we reach Faraway Downs?” The drover (nameless for the entire film) replies, “We’ve been on it for the last two days.” A wide, open country, indeed.

At the ranch, Lady A discovers that her husband is the murdered stockman. But she decides that she can be as tough as any bloke. In short order she hides Nullah from officials who want to haul him off to the white man’s school, sacks the slimy ranch manager (who then goes to work for Carney), rounds up 1,500 head of cattle with a skeleton staff—herself, the drover, Nullah, a grizzled alcoholic accountant, a few loyal Aboriginals, and a Chinese chuck-wagon driver—and sets off for Darwin. Nullah sums up their mission: “We gotta to get those no good big bloody bulls into that metal ship.”

Carney’s men, acting under the orders of the former manager of Faraway Downs, sneak up on them one night and start a stampede. But Nullah uses Aboriginal magic and a Pulp Fiction pose to stop the crazed critters mere feet from the edge of a precipice.

The accountant has been trampled, but with his dying breath he tells the drover the secret of the stockman’s death: A white man made it look like Nullah’s grandfather ran a spear through him.

The drive continues. Lady A has loosened up by now, and romance sizzles amid thundering hooves and soaring violins.

The Faraway Downs folks make it safely to Darwin and race their cattle to the army’s supply ship, beating out Carney by a nose. Phew!

That evening, Nullah sneaks into the local theater to see The Wizard of Oz. He then adopts "Over the Rainbow" as his magic song. (A whimsical connection between the fictional Oz and the Oz that’s modern Australia’s nickname, perhaps?)

Meanwhile, Lady A is here to stay. Dressed in a fetching frock, she appears at a charity ball—the scene of the truest, most intriguing scene in the film. Carney, played by the ever-riveting Bryan Brown, takes his defeat with good grace, dancing with Lady A, then laughing and tipping back a cold one as she sashays off with the drover. In those brief minutes, the character reveals himself as a real son of the outback—fiercely competitive but fair, and up for a good time under the right circumstances.

With the romance of Lady A and the drover now on the front burner, it’s time for Nullah to join his grandfather on a walkabout, the traditional spiritual journey that connects Aboriginal Australians with their landscape. Before they get very far, though, Nullah’s grandfather is arrested for the murder of Lady A’s husband, and a priest hustles the boy off to a proper school for Aboriginal children.

Then, on February 19, 1942, Japanese airplanes swoop in to drop bombs on Darwin. Ships sink. Houses burn. Columns of smoke choke the sky. It’s the largest foreign attack ever launched against Australia, and the first of about a hundred to come during the rest of 1942 and 1943.

In the midst of the chaos, Lady A believes the drover is dead but hopes against all odds that Nullah has survived. The drover thinks that Lady A is dead, and maybe the boy too. With his school under attack, Nullah is sure the drover will come to his rescue. Cue "Over the Rainbow" as a key signal in this muddle.

Baz Luhrmann reportedly shot several endings to the story. The one he chose for U.S. audiences is true to the glowing, hopeful way in which he depicts Aboriginal people throughout the film. An epilogue soberly reminds us that in 1973 the government abandoned its policy of Aboriginal assimilation in the Northern Territory, and that in 2008 Australia finally issued an apology to its Aboriginal community for generations of ill treatment.

The credits for a film this long are inevitably dense, but buried in the middle there’s bit of fun: A nod to Rolf Harris for playing the wobble board. It’s an instrument he invented—a hardboard made for artists, wobbled back and forth— which made the whoopwhoopwhoop sound in his hit "Tie Me Kangaroo Down." I couldn’t help it—I left the theater singing. “There's an old Australian stockman, lying, dying…and he says: ‘Watch me wallaby's feed, mate, watch me wallaby's feed.
They're a dangerous breed, mate, so watch me wallaby's feed.
All together now! Tie me kangaroo down, sport. 
Tie me kangaroo down….’

-Ann Williams

Posted by Marc Silver | Comments (2)
Filed Under: Film


Rebecca Reeder-Hunt
Nov 26, 2008 10AM #

Although I have not yet seen the movie critiqued here, the debate has piqued my curiosity! I would like to recommend that anyone interested in Australian history buy/rent the 2002 DVD "Rabbit Proof Fence." It is based on Doris Pilkington Garimara's book: Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. It is interesting for any age, but also, it can make history come alive for young people. A tear jerker -- and even more so since it is a true story.

Hamish Tait
Nov 26, 2008 10AM #

I am of Aboriginal descent and my Grandmother was one of teh Stolen Generation. i saw the film teh very first session and was blown away. i feel very offended when people sledge it by over analysing it. you sit there and say that it was too long or it was predictable. get over it! the film was a masterpiece and showed what happened historically as well as showing a beautiful story. i dont understand how you could find anything about this film that isn't perfect. I suppose my connection with the film and this country makes me very protective but i think that helps me appreciate it. until you have lived and breathed it you cannot possibly comment properly.

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