Here's my American Conservative review of "Australia," which only got one Oscar nomination -- Best Costumes for director Baz Luhrman's wife. (So, Baz gets shut out, but at least people get reminded that he has a wife.)
The pre-fab national epic “Australia,” a sprawling romance set in the desolate Northern Territory during WWII, represents a risky change in subject and style for Baz Luhrmann, one of this era’s most distinctive directors.
Luhrmann might not be the most naturally talented auteur, but he’s one of the bravest, willing to carve out, through trial and error, his own cinematic language, then throw it away and try to find another one.
Luhrmann’s first three films comprised his Red Curtain Trilogy. He started in 1992 with the dance contest movie “Strictly Ballroom,” and followed with “Romeo + Juliet” in which Leonardo DiCaprio declaims in iambic pentameter in Verona Beach, Florida. Finally, he drove the film fanboys insane with rage but won the hearts of young women with the lushly wretched excess of his astonishing 2001 musical “Moulin Rouge,” in which Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, as the doomed lovers in 1899 Montmartre, not only break into song, but into songs that won’t be written for decades.
Luhrmann worked out a novel set of conventions for his Red Curtain style, the maximalist opposite of Lars Von Trier's more celebrated but less successful Dogme 95 minimalism. Like Bollywood musicals intended to be understood by peasant audiences, the Red Curtain rules stressed blatantly unrealistic theatrical artifice; plots that are time-tested, if not downright hackneyed (in “Moulin Rouge,” we quickly infer from La Traviata and La Bohème that the beautiful courtesan must ultimately die of consumption in the young poet’s arms); and shameless melodrama, all as “a device to disarm oh-so-clever, oh-so-cool people, so that you can have these very direct emotional experiences,” as Luhrmann explained in 2001.
Perhaps tired of everyone assuming that he must be gay because he made musicals (Luhrmann and his wife, Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin, have two small children), Luhrmann decided to make the Great Australian Movie.
In “Australia,” Luhrmann and company work awfully hard to entertain us. The extraordinary lighting ought to ensure that his director of photography, Mandy Walker, becomes the first woman ever Oscar-nominated for Best Cinematography.
No Oscar nomination for her, so women remain shut out of Cinematography nominations completely in the history of the Academy Award going back to the 1920s. The biggest reason for this 0 for roughly 400 performance is that to become a cinematographer, you have to work your way up the ladder via upper body strength by lugging heavy lights and cameras around the set. (Actually, now that I think about, aspiring directors of photography work their way down the ladder -- it's the apprentices who have to go aloft to rig heavy lights.) So, the bottom ranks are almost exclusively men (and probably fairly strong men, I would assume). Yes, no doubt there are cognitive differences in visuospatial orientation between the sexes, but not big enough to account for 0 for ever.
By the way, if the Academy wants to give out more Oscars to women in technical categories -- which they always say they do -- they should start giving out a Best Casting director Oscar. The great majority of casting directors are women. (A big part of having a long career as a casting director is rejecting actors with fragile psyches gently enough that they'll keep coming back to audition for your next project). Granted, casting directors aren't as big a deal in movies as in TV shows (where Bonnie Timmerman became famous a quarter of a century ago for her casting of guest criminals and witnesses on Miami Vice), but the casting of minor roles would seem to be about as important a part of movie-making as, say, Sound Editing, which has its own Oscar.
Still, the mixed results of “Australia” suggest that it’s better to start a national epic with a good story (Scarlett and Rhett, say) than with enormous ambition but no plot. Luhrmann and his three co-writers ginned up a scenario in which Kidman plays a starchy English aristocrat who has inherited 7.5 million acres of Outback. Hugh Jackman (Wolverine of “X-Men”) is the ruggedly affable cowboy who must drive her 1500 head of cattle to Darwin’s dock. When watching “Moulin Rouge,” you always knew how it would end, but never knew what would happen next. With “Australia,” a prolonged pastiche of famous epics, you can always guess what comes next, but never know when it will end.
This framework does allow Luhrmann to drag in edifying events from Australia’s rather undramatic history books, such as the Pearl Harbor Lite bombing of Darwin by the Japanese in 1942, and the oft-lamented “Stolen Generations” of half-Aboriginal children who were taken away from their alcoholic mothers and given free educations. Luhrmann ladles on plenty of the kitschy Aboriginal spirituality that the Australian tourist board employs to distract from the appalling condition of Aborigines under today’s multiculturalist welfare state.
Still, despite his populist sympathies, Luhrmann remains an idiosyncratic experimentalist better suited to eight-figure rather than nine-figure budgets. In “Moulin Rouge,” he found a stylistic rule that organized his film. As the story turned from comedy to tragedy, the pace of the editing slowed from frenetic to monumental. In “Australia,” though, he doesn’t seem to have yet stumbled upon a mode to suit his new genre. I hope studios keep giving him $130 million per epic until he does, although I fear they won’t.
Jackman and Kidman are fine, but they’re fairly generic movie stars. It’s hard not to wonder what Australia’s A-Team (Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett) might have done. Of course, without better lines than “Australia” musters, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh themselves would not have generated much movie magic.
The film, though, is saved by the performance of newcomer Brandon Walters as the little half-Aboriginal boy who narrates. The camera loves his big eyes and dark gold hair, and he has an ingenuous way with Pidgin English (“We gonna drive ev'ryonna those fat cheeky bulls allaway to da big metal boat!”) that left me calling, for perhaps the first time ever, for “Less dialogue, more voice-over!”Rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language.