Rating: Rated M (violence and coarse language)
On an estimated budget of $180m, this film has an incredible line-up of talent behind it. The actors involved read like a “Who’s Who” in Australian cinema, and the director, Baz Luhrmann, has surrounded himself with a team of professionals associated with a host of international and Australian awards. The only untried newcomer is Brandon Walters who plays the part of Nullah, a half-caste child, who becomes a pivotal figure in the human drama that unfolds. David Gulpilil plays the role of his grand-father, an Aboriginal shaman, who teaches Nullah indigenous magic.
Nicole Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, who travels to Australia in search of her unfaithful husband. Trapped in a loveless marriage with no children, she arrives in the country with airs and graces that make her a misfit. In the Northern Territory on a cattle station (Faraway Downs), which she now owns after her husband’s murder, she tries to cope with “Drover” (Hugh Jackman), whose rough edges contrast with her pretensions. They can’t warm to each other, but time teaches Drover he is wrong and Sarah’s feelings for Drover begin to change. Faraway Downs is facing bankruptcy and ruin, and Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) evilly schemes with cattle-baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) to take over the property and defraud Sarah. Jack Thompson plays the resident alcoholic and accountant, who wants to help her. In dealing with all of this, Sarah forms a strong emotional bond with Nullah, who is later transported dramatically to Mission Island, off Darwin, by the Government authorities. Suddenly caring for others has a focus, and Sarah’s irritation with Drover turns to something else as she realizes that Nullah has brought herself and Drover together. They drive their cattle to Darwin to save Faraway Downs. Nullah is incarcerated on Mission Island as it and Darwin are bombed by Japan in World War II.
There are multiple levels on which this film must work to fulfil the expectations it has engendered since it went into production. Its soul is best captured by the landscape surrounding the characters. The outback scenery is exhilarating and Luhrmann captures its intensity brilliantly. Its light, dramatic colour and grandeur are painstakingly caught by the film’s director of photography, Mandy Walker, who was awarded a Camera d’Or film prize from Cannes for her “Love Serenade.” Catherine Martin, two-time Oscar winner for costume design and art direction, provides extraordinary detail on the production side in these areas. Nicole Kidman moves from a stiff aristocrat to a woman who sheds her pretensions to show deep emotional commitment to both country and people. She comes to love Nullah, Drover, and the land that owns the three of them. The results are cinema that achieves romance, drama and spectacle. Luhrmann, an incurable romantic, has brought his visionary skills to the making of this movie. Kidman’s performance is good, but acting honours go to Brandon Walters, and then to Hugh Jackman for his portrayal of the restless Drover.
There is some tension in this movie between the artifices and staged craft that Luhrmann uses to embellish his story-telling – which turn drama at times into melodrama – and the deeper, more universal themes of spirit of place and reconciliation that lie underneath. The spirit of place that characterizes Australia uniquely shapes the nature of the culture and the people within it and nowhere is that spirit more obvious than in outback-Australia. In this film, the spiritual heart of the country is palpably present and the film makes very good use of spectacular imagery that includes stampeding cattle on the edge of a precipice, and the bombing of Darwin. The film movingly dwells on the spirit of place, takes obvious pride in its capture, and carries adventurous exploits along with an international story-line appeal that has historical sweep. Despite the careful sensitivity of the film to indigenous culture, it perhaps remains problematic that the affection of a white aristocratic woman for a victim of the stolen generation, highlights in just the right way the social injustice represented by the forced removal of Nullah from his indigenous community. However, the movie is a great creative achievement for Luhrmann and his team and it captures Australia wonderfully well in all of its grandeur, sameness and diversity. This film is not “Gone with the Wind”, but it is the closest thing to it that this country has ever produced.
20th Century Fox Out November 26
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.