Glenn Bristol of the website FilmWonk drives cattle with Baz Lurhmann’s all-you-can-eat buffet of a western epic, Australia.
There are two opening title cards to Baz Luhrmann‘s Australia.
“After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy steamed south, unleashing their fire on Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory of Australia.
‘The Territory’ was a land of crocodiles, cattle barons, and warrior chiefs where adventure and romance was a way of life.
It was also a place where aboriginal children of mixed-race were taken by force from their families and trained for service in white society. These children became known as the Stolen Generations.”
Starting with the Hitchcockian “bomb under the table” before jumping back in time two years was an odd choice. If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t say the mention of impending Imperial Japanese bombers provoked much suspense for me while watching this film, because the first 90 minutes are a rip-roaring western epic about a cattle drive, with the initial flirtations of a period romance, mostly taking place in the middle of nowhere in the Australian Outback. This crawl had entirely left my head by the time the second film (a speed-run of Michael Bay‘s Pearl Harbor) begins, because Australia really is two-and-a-half films crammed into one. It’s Luhrmann’s very own Down Under Lord of the Rings, seemingly with the self-awareness of a director who knew he would probably only get financing for this thing once. So, no need to trim the script—let’s just do it all in a three-hour epic, Gone With the Wind-style. The other opening title card is a warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers that they should exercise caution when watching this film, as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons. Between this and the Japanese bomber warning, it’s pretty clear that the film is promising that people will die on this adventure, but it’s also explicitly announcing its intention to court an audience of Indigenous peoples, as well as to tell a tale on their behalf.
As I write this a decade later, the warning about deceased persons has literally come true for two actors who each made their final appearance in this film. Ray Barrett, an actor with a career spanning five decades who played a cameo role, passed at the age of 82 from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2009. And David Ngoombujarra, who plays Magarri and was barely half Barrett’s age, was found dead in a park in 2011 of unspecified (but non-suspicious) causes. That’s all I know about Ngoombujarra. The internet can tell me a few more things: He had a winning smile; his colleagues claimed he struggled with alcoholism; he was taken from his Aboriginal parents in 1967 under government policy, adopted at 10 months old, and raised by white parents in Western Australia under the name David Bernard Starr; he originally came from the Yamatji people. This film tells me that Aborigines believe that once a person dies, you should no longer speak their name, and demonstrates occasional interest in the differences between Aboriginal tribes (at least in one extremely specific plot-serving way). But I won’t act as if I know something about this man, including anything about his preference one way or the other about his name being used after death. This is a film with pretenses of educating its audience, and I suppose in the case of the Stolen Generations, it did that in a minimal fashion—I had never heard of this policy prior to this film. But the film’s primary vehicle for this lesson is a mixed-race Aboriginal boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who spends nearly the film’s full runtime speaking non-specifically about his experience of not belonging, and by the end, I can’t say I learned anything more about the fictional Aborigine than I did about the real one.
The film starts in media res with Nullah’s voiceover. He learned everything he knows from an elder named King George (David Gulpilil), including to hate and fear white people, whom the elder claims need to be purged from this land. Because of Nullah’s mixed-race parentage, he is understandably worried about being taken away by the government and church—so whenever white people turn up, he makes himself invisible. Initially, he hides underwater (in a billabong—essentially a temporary swamp) from a team driving cattle. Then some vague things happen, Nullah dodges a man getting speared through the chest, then claims his horse, then runs into a derelict cattle ranch to hide in a water tower. Then Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman show up, and…the camera flies around and swoops into the sky. Title. Three weeks earlier. None of that was really necessary.
And then the story actually begins, as Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), an English aristocrat, packs to travel down under to sell Faraway Downs, a cattle station that she owns with her husband Lord Ashley. She suspects her husband was just using this backwater ranch as an excuse to travel far away and bang other women. I should pause here and note, it’s hilarious to me that even as Hugh Jackman gets to go full Crocodile Dundee in this film, while Australian and frequent accent-performer Nicole Kidman is being forced to play English—and not just English, but essentially Rachel Weisz‘s reluctant librarian adventurer from The Mummy. Lady Ashley is determined (despite her husband’s telegrams to the contrary) to show up in person and force the sale, so Lord Ashley promises to send his trusted man to meet her at the port city of Darwin (Didn’t we hear something about this city earlier?).
When we first meet the trusted man, of course it’s Hugh Jackman, whose name and function is Drover. He’s wearing a cowboy hat, punching a dude in the face, and drinking a beer, and…yes, this film is called Australia. This is before Jackman beefed up for the latter half of his Wolverine years, but he could still throw down in a choreographed brawl with his usual vigor. For next five minutes, while Drover brawls in the background with literally a dozen racist dudes who have a problem with his friendly attitude toward the Aborigines, the story and stakes of the film’s first half are laid out: Carney (Bryan Brown) is the
Sausage King of Chicago Beef Baron of Australia, and his only possible competitor is Lady Ashley’s little cattle station, Faraway Downs. As a good monopolist who senses an imminent opportunity for some war profiteering, he doesn’t want to jeopardize his lucrative beef contract with the Aussie Army, so he’s engaging in a few dirty tricks to ensure that not a single beast from Faraway Downs makes it onto “that dock right there” in Darwin. Drover (Jackman) drives cattle on a commission basis (“No one hires me, no one fires me”), and he’s been contracted by Lord Ashley to drive 1,500 head of cattle to that very dock, on the condition that he escort Lady Ashley to the cattle station first. Because he’s a Trusted Man and all that. He wrecks a bit of her luggage (and scatters her underthings) in the brawl, welcomes her to Australia. She is scandalized, and they are off and running on a dune buggy on a soundstage.
I should mention, thanks to the crew at the /Filmcast (who were my early podcasting idols), I’d already heard a bit about the “George Lucas beauty” (flagrant CGI) of this film before I saw it theatrically, and while its intermittently spotty visuals didn’t bother me in ’08, they certainly weren’t lost on me either. Most of this film takes place in the Australian wilderness, and it is almost uniformly gorgeous whenever it’s a wide shot and I’m not thinking too hard about whether it was real or not. The film seems to have seen this coming, because when the gang stops to camp in what appears to be a studio set, an undeniably authentic visual moment ensues:
After the Drover’s shampoo commercial wraps, he and Magarri shock Lady Ashley with a bit of lightly ribald banter before treating her basically decently (this continues in the car, with a misunderstanding over horse breeding), then they arrive on the cattle ranch, which has been gutted, and her husband Lord Ashley (who turned out to be the man we saw speared through the chest in the prologue) lies dead in the parlor. The cattle station’s manager, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), whom we already saw colluding with the ruthless Carney in the exposition scene, spins a yarn about how King George, a “murderous black,” killed Lord Ashley. He also says the windmill-driven water pump doesn’t work, the cattle are all gone, he’s not a murderer, etc., before Nullah demolishes this pile of lies pretty effectively by instantaneously fixing the windmill. Fletcher attacks him and his mother and is promptly fired. He and his men leave, but one drunk fellow, Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), tells the tale. The cattle ranch is facing foreclosure, and Fletcher has been embezzling unbranded cattle for years, siphoning them off into Carney’s land and herd. Oh, and Nullah is totally Fletcher’s unacknowledged son, as if the latter’s command of an Aboriginal language and casual racism and domestic violence didn’t make that clear. Flynn suggests that the only way that Lady Ashley can beat Carney and Fletcher at their own game is to drove the remaining cattle to Darwin. If only she knew someone who could assist…
Drover is outside, herding a gorgeous pack of unbridled horses. Then he stops and stands outside the ranch, and he and Lady Ashley have an intense conversation on…greenscreen? What the hell is going on visually with this movie? There are literally two dudes standing motionless on horseback in the background of Jackman’s shot, and I’m not sure if either of these movie stars is actually in this location, having this conversation. I shouldn’t find this quite so obnoxious, but…I really do. From the Star Wars prequels to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, there’s nothing that will take me out of a film faster than the feeling that the movie is bullshitting me about where the actors actually are. And it’s not as if there aren’t equally good examples of this. Greenscreen is prolific. Avatar, Life of Pi, Game of Thrones, virtually every Marvel film… As well as innumerable other productions where the compositing is so seamless that it’s essentially unnoticeable unless you’re really looking for it. The VFX industry has gotten a lot better at this. But sets haven’t yet become optional even a decade later, and there was a period of time in the mid-2000s where the oeuvre of George Lucas managed to convince some TV and film productions that they were. Famously, he even visited the 2001 shoot in Martin Scorsese‘s full-scale replica set of 1850s Five Points neighborhood for Gangs of New York, and balked at the expense of such a set when CGI buildings are surely cheaper. Perhaps they are (as Rhythm and Hues can attest), but cheaper isn’t always better, and bad compositing can severely date a film, as it does here. From the one-two punch of these shots, what appears to be the reality of this production is that the ranch house at Faraway Downs doesn’t exist (or is a model), but some of the fencing does? So as the pair has a tepid argument about whether or not they have enough experienced riders for the drove, every shot of Kidman is on a soundstage, some of the shots of Jackman are on location, and it’s honestly pretty tiresome to watch. I’ll try to stop commenting on this quite so much, but this uneven fakery hangs over Australia throughout its runtime.
Following a drove-training montage, the police arrive, and Nullah and his mother Daisy (Ursula Yovich) dart into the water tower to hide. The police are ostensibly there to investigate Lord Ashley’s murder, but Fletcher also dropped a dime on his own kid, and they tell Lady Ashley to keep an eye out for him so they can take him away. As the cops wash off at the water pump, its activation somehow begins to fill the upper tank with water even faster (this mechanism makes no sense to me). The ladder breaks loose, and Nullah and his mother are in peril of drowning in the middle of the driest part of the dry season in the Outback. Lady Ashley covers for Nullah, and sends the cops on their way—and Drover runs up to save the pair. But it’s too late for Daisy, who has drowned.
I should mention at this point, as I attempt to comment on the race relations in this film, I feel a bit like John Denver. I can sing with ridiculous superficiality about the stereotypes and iconography of Australia, but I’m not about to pretend I can comment insightfully on the Stolen Generations, except to say that they’re an unambiguous case of institutionalized white supremacy, and I’ve learned in the past decade that such arrangements were more the rule than the exception throughout the age of empires. What’s more, it’s literally what the Trump Administration did (on a smaller scale) on the US-Mexico border last year—stealing children from their parents like a fairy-tale demon, traumatizing them at a tender age, and in many cases, deporting their parents and not tracking them in any meaningful way. Many of them will be adopted out or become wards of the state, never to see their families again, through the banal cruelty of a needless policy motivated by the need to tickle the sensibilities of racist rubes, combined with administrative and bureaucratic ineptitude. It is sickening. And even if Australia struggles to find a more detailed message other than “This was bad,” as I view it a decade later, the film feels like a decent prototype of the sort of cultural commentary that will inevitably emerge in the future to damn our current era’s policies in retrospect. Perhaps it’ll be under a rosy glow of romantic adventure, like this film, or quaint nostalgia, à la Forrest Gump. But one way or another, future generations will come to know some part of the present struggle through an artistic lens.
But let’s talk about Daisy’s death. I tend to think that Australia means well, and perhaps even functions as a piece of lightly educational content about the troubled racial history of the continent. But as a pair of white protagonists trade facile barbs about whether or not any specific detail of their employment of or interaction with Aborigines at Faraway Downs constitutes “exploitation,” it all feels a bit undercut when an Indigenous woman dies in the most pointless way possible to save her son from peril that was, in every sense of the word, unnecessary. Aborigines are present in this film, but by and large, their voices are not. And the child Nullah (who is also joining the drove), seems less like a character and more like an avatar for narration. Another Aborigine, Bandy Legs, screams Daisy’s name and cries as the camera fades upward—her pain as much as part of the scenery as the windmill. And the tale goes on. The Aborigines bury their dead, and the distant King George, who is also (*deep sigh*) in front of a greenscreen, seems distraught.
Drover dispatches Lady Ashley, literally because she’s a woman and all that, to comfort the child. This scene is actually quite marvelous, as the well-meaning aristocrat kneels on a pair of newspapers and gives Nullah a lousy rendition of the story of The Wizard of Oz, eventually singing a randomly keyed rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a motif that will return throughout the film. Baz? Let’s talk for a moment. I know your country is literally called Oz, but as evocative far-flung renditions go, that song belongs squarely to Iz Kamakawiwo’ole in Hawaii. Just go with Men at Work next time. Although I must say, watching Kidman pretend like she can’t sing (after Luhrmann already showed off her singing prowess just seven years earlier) is almost as amusingly undignified as making her speak with an English accent, and she has a giddy old time with it, mixing up verse and chorus and giggling and cheering up the boy in spite of herself. Then Nullah, who only exists to advance the plot, tells her that it’s time to get those no-good, cheeky bulls into that big, bloody metal ship, because the grief scene is over, and it’s time to move some cows!
Flynn has apparently been in rehab during this montage, as he shatters an entirely full bottle of rum before announcing he’s ready to join the party. Magarri, Bandy Legs, and another Aborigine join the crew, and Drover delivers some highly specific admonitions to the woman, the kid, and the drunk, and mostly ignores the three others. And off the herd goes, and…I must say, every wide shot of the cows is pretty stellar. The cows don’t have to do a lot (except briefly die in visually thrilling ways), and they kick up enough dust to cover any visual oddities. When the team crosses the river, there seem to be a few dozen actual cows involved. Back in Darwin, a newsreel tells the tale of war in Europe, Carney maneuvers to get the army beef contract, and Fletcher fumes. Villainy is afoot.
As the herd advances through a canyon, Nullah—who has been delivering voiceover this entire time and saying very little, utters his least substantial line yet. Speaking of Lady Ashley, he intones, “When Mrs. Boss first come to this land, she look, but she not see. Now, she got her eyes open for the first time,” and…wow this is embarrassing, “Some places got spirits. White fellas don’t know. Some places no good to go.” King George, who can teleport, is naked atop another cliff as they pass. Four goons with black hats approach to cause trouble. Nullah randomly tells Flynn that King George is his grandfather, and… the man is visibly shocked. Flynn later asks Nullah to confirm that Lord Ashley was killed by a glass-tipped spear. This seems like it’ll be important later. The sun instantaneously rises, Fletcher and his goons (also in front of a greenscreen, but on horseback) crest the hill, start a fire, and scatter the cows, who stampede toward the cliffs. A pattern ensues as this legitimately awesome action-adventure setpiece plays out: Every wide shot is great, every close-up is flat-out terrible. But these people are acting the hell out of it, and honestly, this is exactly the kind of raucous action setpiece I tuned in for. Flynn gets trampled, and a few cows fall as they drive the herd around the cliff, then Fletcher’s goons set off another miraculously well-placed fire line, and the whole bloody mess is heading straight for Nullah at the cliff’s edge. So…he sings at em. We occasionally cut to King George, who does the same. And lo, their magic quells the stampede. Nullah passes out from the ordeal of using his magic, and nearly takes a tumble off the cliff, and Lady Ashley grabs him just in time. King George, who is not in the same location as any other character, says to no one in particular, “You are brave, my grandson.” All of this is pretty stupid, but in a way I’m used to by this point.
Flynn, who was just trampled by 1,497 cows, lives just long enough to tell Drover about the glass-tipped spear (and a cloistered bottle of booze under the cook wagon), then dies. Drover explains to Lady Ashley what it means: Fletcher used one of the ornamental spears inside the homestead to murder Lord Ashley in an effort to frame King George, not realizing that King George (who hails from a different region) would never carry this type of spear. Of all the points this film makes about white Australians exploiting and misunderstanding the Aborigines, this is perhaps one of the most effective, even if it comes on the heels of some melodic cow-magic. Fletcher uses and abuses an Indigenous family, abandons his child to become a ward of the state, and tries to frame the child’s grandfather for an opportunistic murder and betrayal that he himself perpetrated. And why? Because he knew the Aussie police would roll with it, just as we saw they did. The Murderous Black, King George. Rolls right off the tongue. But he couldn’t get his facts straight, so when anyone bothered to look at them with the most basic amount of Aboriginal knowledge, they saw right through it. More on this later.
Lady Ashley gives Hugh Jackman a sweltering look (yeah, her eyes are intense enough to break his character) and tells him, “We can’t let them win.” “We won’t,” says the Drover. And they high-tail it with the herd in the middle of the night. Without being seen by Fletcher and his men. Somehow. Off-screen. Don’t think about it. The next day, they pour shots from Flynn’s bottle (breaking the Drover’s code or something), and toast his memory. They empty the bottle, and as the extras supply background music, Lady Ashley and Drover have a drunken dance, followed by a drunken kiss. Get it, both of you. Then Nullah interrupts with some inane questions from the tree above, before Bandy Legs ushers him back to the fire. Drover reveals he was married before he went off to war, and his wife died of tuberculosis, because back then, the hospitals wouldn’t treat…blacks. No kids. Lady Ashley, despite being visibly shocked by this, politely intones, “What a shame. I think you would’ve made a great father.” “You?” asks Drover. “No. I can’t,” says Lady Ashley. Her childbearing difficulties will not be mentioned again in the film, but Drover echoes her sentiment that she would’ve made a great mother.
A quick aside. The tone of this scene is all over the place, and its glancing treatment of infertility screams that the script was written by multiple dudes. Giving the brooding protagonist both a wartorn past and a dead wife in place of depth is a Christopher Nolan-worthy cliché. But giving the brooding white protagonist a dead Indigenous wife merits a moment’s consideration as to the film’s overall treatment of such people—a treatment which has unceremoniously disposed of at least two such women by this point as a means of motivating the rest of the cast. This very week on the FilmWonk Podcast, we reviewed the new Western anthology from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And by golly we did our best to comment appropriately on the (seemingly deliberate) cartoonish depiction of Native Americans in a manner that both played into and subverted Western archetypes. And I tend to think we did a decent job of it. But I must admit, when Toronto film critic Adam Nayman convened a panel of Indigenous directors to discuss the film’s depictions of Native Americans, he surely had me pegged when he said this:
“One group we haven’t brought up that is homogeneous and white is film critics. That’s maybe one of the reasons why people are more comfortable deconstructing Buster Scruggs in terms of Western tropes than actually talking about the history that it occludes or gets rid of…When you have filmmakers this brilliant, influential and taking up this much oxygen in the discussion—and I know because I just wrote a 90,000-word book on them—how much of this stuff is given a pass because it could be intellectually rationalized? And who are the people rationalizing it? It’s mostly white critics.”
This led me to an editorial by Canadian and Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson (also on the panel). In a discussion of media depictions of Canada’s own troubled racial history, she inadvertently describes Australia as well.
“It became easy to separate ourselves from what happened at those schools. Those black-suited historical figures become ciphers onto which we could project the worst in human nature and condemn it, keeping ourselves wholly separate. We would never do those awful things.
And then there is the portrayal of victims. Victims are often voiceless, helpless and also one-sided characters. Their role is to suffer. This dehumanizes and infantilizes them, taking away their agency and complexity. This is generally how Indigenous people are portrayed even in the most well-intentioned stories created by non-Indigenous people. In fact, and unfortunately, there can be a strong correlation between the well-meaning desire to condemn what happened and lift up the victims and the oversimplification of storytelling into the good/evil dichotomy, which gives us the twin satisfaction of being better people than the terrible villains and feeling sorry for the victims, who become sort of childlike and in need of care.“
All Indigenous people aren’t the same, all colonial legacies (even within the always-sunny British Empire) are not the same either. But it’s probably fair to say that the well-meaning simplicity of white directors when it comes to approaching Indigenous stories do achieve a level of homogeneity. In 2008, my approach to this subject matter, to these one-dimensional depictions and dismissals, was essentially to ignore them. Or to naively laud them for their efforts (see late teenage Glenn’s reaction to the movie Crash).
This was a good place for this aside, because the rest of the film (which ends in the next five minutes as the cattle arrive at Darwin) is just more of the same. Fletcher’s boys poison the wells, and the Aborigines use their magic to guide the herd across an impassable desert called the Never Never. We flash forward to Darwin, where Carney has seemingly planted a tale in the newspaper of the tragic demise of the entire drove (including Lady Ashley), and the Army Captain Dutton (played as a surprise nice-guy turn by Ben Mendelsohn!) tepidly signs the contract just as the drove arrives. Dutton, who’s no fan of Carney, mentions unprompted that the contract isn’t binding until the beef is actually loaded onto the ships, so…a brief, exciting bit of competitive cow-longshoring ensues, and of course the hero-cows make it onto the ships to be heroically slaughtered. Triumph! Happiness. Nullah, who has apparently forgotten the legal peril that he’s in along with the film, drives the last cheeky bull onto the big, bloody metal ship in full view of his father who tried to get him arrested not three days earlier, and…everyone gets drunk. Nullah summarizes, “So everybody get what they want! Everybody happy. Mrs. Boss is gonna sell Faraway Downs and go back England. Everybody happy except for me. Because I not white fella, not black fella either—me belong no one.”
Sigh. The movie is over! Dream a little dream of the credits rolling, because the second movie will begin presently.
Lady Ashley descends a staircase with a loving gaze upon Drover, and announces her intention to stay down under and run Faraway Downs. She offers Drover a job, and…he balks. And also totally misses that she’s asking him out to a celebratory ball with the local gentry—which, once he understands, says he’s “as good as black to them” and refuses. “That’s the way it is,” he says. “Just because that’s the way it is, doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be.” It may be easy to lose in my criticism of the film’s script that I really do adore these two together on-screen. The Drover will repeat this sentiment with bitter sadness later in the film, and these Jackman and Kidman do some outstanding work with what they’re given here. We cut back to the Faraway Downs crew at their camp outside of Darwin, and Bandy Legs is plotting to take Nullah to go see The Wizard of Oz in Darwin. After painting his face with ash so he looks like he’s the child of two black parents, and thus will merely be treated badly, but not stolen away to Mission Island. This is…colossally fucked up, but it’s actually one of the few bits of racial politics where the Aborigines are shown to make a decision for themselves, which really just makes me disappointed that it does nothing to advance the plot.
Back at the ball, Lady Ashley (going solo) meets the friendly Captain Dutton, and a pair of rich old women grouse about her husband barely being cold in the ground when she’s taking up with another man. And I have to say, even though they’ve misread this specific situation, they kinda have a point. Lady Ashley followed her husband down to Australia under the assumption he was traveling to cheat on her, and the film presents no evidence that this was ever anything more than her own insecurities. When she finds out that her husband was murdered by his business partner (after previously believing he was murdered by a local Aboriginal elder), she had already started smooching with the Drover not three days later. It’s a scandal and it kinda should be. Anyway, it turns out Lady Ashley just wants to inquire with the good captain about the legality of adopting Nullah in order to protect him (not sure what an Army captain would have to do with this, but okay). There’s some fine juxtaposition in the staging of this scene, because as a conversation about racist nonsense proceeds (underneath some randomly placed Chinese lanterns), Lady Ashley is literally being auctioned off (for a dance) to benefit the very same racist childrens’ missions that she’s trying to keep Nullah away from. An unspecified Old White Dude pipes up with some racist nonsense about how adopting Nullah is quite out of the question because [“blah blah blah Aborigines aren’t people,” it’s all awful and period-authentic and I won’t recap it in detail here]. Lady Ashley correctly points out that this is nonsense, and perhaps we should ask their fathers, since…after all, they’re in this room. Carney breaks the tension by bidding 500 quid for the lady’s hand, and they proceed with a tense dance. She accuses Fletcher of murdering her husband, which…Carney seems genuinely surprised by. And then he offers once again to buy her property, even going so far as to offer the continued residency and protection of the workers and kids into the contract. She’s on the verge of taking his offer, when a clean-shaven Hugh Jackman shows up for a Foxtrot. She tells Carney the ranch is not for sale, and romance ensues.
Throwing a fancy ball really is where Luhrmann (and production designer Catherine Martin, who has designed all of Luhrmann’s films) excel, and this one happening entirely outdoors, in period garb, on a waterfront no less, really is a sight to behold. And then a rainstorm erupts, the couple kisses, the music swells, and party hoots and hollers. Carney, who it turns out really was just a ruthless tycoon and not an accessory to murder, tells Fletcher he’s done with him (and a prior plan to marry his daughter Cath Carney is quite out of the question). Nullah, over at the movie theater, sits in the rain continuing to watch The Wizard of Oz, and, it kinda seems like this would be a convenient time for his ashen blackface to wash off and create some logically-consistent peril, but the movie has no time for that, because it’s time for the official couple to get busy. And we’re talkin hardcore “Rated PG-13 for some Sensuality”-careful-sheet-placement sex in a colossal four-poster behind an open screen-door. Getting it all the way on (in a single position with zero motion). And, yes, it’s all very sweet.
Montage. Nullah’s voiceover continues a bit less obnoxiously than before as Faraway Downs blooms in the rain. The workers work, the children play, and it’s strongly implied that Lady Ashley is bribing a cop (or perhaps just serving him tea) to turn a blind eye to Nullah’s presence on the ranch. There are many, many magic-hour kisses in front of various pristine vistas, and it’s all quite lovely. During the dry season, Drover droves—but he always comes back during the wet season.
Anyway, Fletcher murders Carney with a rifle-butt into a crocodile, marries his daughter Cath (her father apparently didn’t bother to warn her about Fletcher being a murderer and stuff). Two years have passed, and Japan enters the war. Fletcher arrives at Faraway Downs to be a dick some more, threatens Lady Ashley, Nullah, and the ranch. Lady Ashley threatens to tell Fletcher’s new beef heiress wife that Nullah is Fletcher’s son, and he…essentially confesses to murdering Lady Ashley’s husband and threatens to do the same to her. Then he says his new catchphrase, “Pride’s not power!” before smirking away. Lady Ashley admonishes Bandy Legs not to tell the Drover about the conversation. Out in the yard, the Drover performs some recreational horse chores, and Nullah spews the following bits of random, plot-motivating nonsense through the fence:
“You a man, Drover? Sometimes man got to get away from woman. That’s why you go droving. If you don’t go droving, you not a man. King George tell me I gotta go walkabout. If I a man, I gotta go walkabout. Learn’em be a man.”
I have no idea what this child is talking about, but I think he needs to shut up. Captain Dutton comes back to offer a big Army drove for the next six months, and Drover (who has internalized Nullah’s speech with shocking haste) immediately decides to accept it. Nullah disappears on walkabout with King George. Lady Ashley and Drover argue about whether or not to go after him, with the Drover denying that Nullah is his responsibility, and expressing certainty that it’ll be impossible to find him. The Drover is making sense here—they can’t keep Nullah captive if he wants to leave—but it’s fairly amusing to see the Drover explain that it’s impossible to track Nullah down, considering the police find and arrest him along with King George not two minutes later. The argument reaches an impasse, and Drover says he’s off to the drove and will be back in six months. Lady Ashley issues an ultimatum. Either the Drover stays with her at the ranch, or…she doesn’t want him to return. Bye-bye, Drover.
A series of elaborate vfx shots of the now-packed Darwin harbor ensue. It’s on a war footing, littered with civilian and naval vessels and personnel, and everyone prepares to evacuate to the South. Everyone except…the mixed-race children being whisked off to Mission Island, and the Catholic clergy in charge of them. These scenes (shot in a real coastal town in Queensland, heavily enhanced with CGI) look dated, but they’re good. Nullah is taken away to Mission Island as Lady Ashley protests ten feet away behind a fence—there are literally thousands of people visible in these shots, but this town really is quite tiny. Cath Fletcher encourages her husband to do something to help Lady Ashley (and seems vaguely progressive compared to her peers). He promptly heads down to the dock to join Lady Ashley, mocks the survival prospects of Nullah (his son) on Mission Island, which has a radio tower and will thus be an attractive target for the Imperial Japanese. He orders Lady Ashley to take a job with his wife at Army HQ, and he’ll allow her to stay close, provided she signs the contract. He repeats his dumb catchphrase a few more times as he walks away. He has about two months to live.
In the Outback, Magarri—now revealed to be the Drover’s brother-in-law—challenges him on why he left Lady Ashley behind. Magarri accuses him of being afraid of getting his heart broken again like when his sister died, and says that the Drover probably never even told Lady Ashley that he loves her. Just as with Nullah, the Drover internalizes this speech with alarming haste, and the two brothers high-tail it back to Darwin. Two months have somehow passed without Lady Ashley selling the ranch to Fletcher, and he finally offers to reunite her with Nullah on Mission Island if she signs the contract. Again, it is entirely unclear to me how he has this power, but apparently beef barons own the north, and that’s just the way it is. Yet another high-stakes contract-signing gets interrupted at the last second, as an armada of Imperial Japanese bombers arrives. A handful of them peel off to strafe and bomb Mission Island, and the rest head squarely into Darwin. A red-headed woman stands before an open window and stares directly at the bombers’ approach, and an explosion destroys the wall, killing her. A bomb explodes next to King George’s cell, releasing him. He stands perfectly safe in the open like the wizard that he is, watching the bombs explode around him, and the whole of Darwin town, ships and buildings alike, are bombed to their foundations. The Drover shows up in the aftermath, and believes Lady Ashley is dead. She’s not though. It was Cath. We learn this in approximately 90 seconds. This sequence really is a visual feast, but it has zero tension.
The heartbroken Drover arrives at the only bar in Darwin (which is still standing), and demands that his brother Magarri be allowed into the segregated bar for a [PG-13] “fucking drink!” Ivan the (Racist and Sexist) Bartender refuses, then reluctantly agrees. This is good. Magarri deserves one last drink, because he’ll be dead by the end of this paragraph. Ivan explains that Mission Island was indeed hit first, and Nullah and the rest of the children are surely in God’s hands now. Drover and Magarri promptly hijack a boat and head out to the island, where they find dozens of children alive. This seems…more cheery than it ought to be, given the amount of strafing we saw in that attack. But Drover quickly finds Nullah, tells him that they can’t say Lady Ashley’s name anymore, and warm hugs are had by all, before Imperial Japanese soldiers approach through the jungle. Drover and the kids hide under the dock and make their way to the end of the peer, and Magarri helpfully offers to stay behind and die. What the fuck, movie? Remember earlier in the film when Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman spoke of exploitation? This, right here, is exploitation. I mean, good lord, Magarri (whose name I’m about to no longer be able to say) might as well change his name to Character Shield for his remaining seconds as he buys the escaping kids no time, and dies for nothing. He hides bravely behind a pier, and engages a dozen soldiers with a bolt-action rifle as the kids float to safety. The gun jams after two shots, and he runs and dies pointlessly.
Goodbye, [ ], we hardly knew ye.
And that’s a wrap, David. Farewell, sir.
The boat makes its way back into the harbor, and King George makes literally his first tangible contribution to the plot by standing atop a Carney silo and singing toward the harbor so the boat can find its way back through the fog. Nullah plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his harmonica, the other children join in, and through the magic of music, everyone stops and is reunited—Drover, Lady Ashley, Nullah, and the rest of the children. This moment is very sweet, and it’s amazing what a moment of musical catharsis – even one as hamfistedly executed as this—can bring. The concern for Lady Ashley’s and Nullah’s purported deaths lasted barely a few minutes in movie time, but this family credibly sold its anguish (even if they got over the death of [ ] pretty much instantaneously). A dumb sequence ensues where Fletcher blames Lady Ashley and Nullah for his wife’s demise, and proceeds to hunt them with a rifle. King George makes his second tangible contribution to the plot by spearing the fuck out of him from a hundred yards with a pipe from the water tower. King George also speaks the only line that he has spoken so far to another character, “He’s my grandson, and he’s your son.” Not bad, King George, I guess.
The couple shares a merry kiss, the family returns to Faraway Downs, and Nullah gives his most nonsensical voiceover yet: “One thing I know. Why we tell story is the most important of all. That’s how you keep them people belong you…always.” In due course, King George shows up (a hundred yards away, in front of a greenscreen, as is his way). Nullah strips off his shirt and heads out on walkabout with his grandfather, who whispers a few more lines in Lady Ashley’s direction: “You have been on a journey, now we are heading home. To my country. To our country.” Then he bares his ass to the camera and walks away.
“The government officially abandoned the assimilation policy for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory in 1973. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia offered a formal apology to the members of the Stolen Generations.”
This movie is thin. Thin as tomato bisque. But I have to admit, I can still see some of its appeal. Americans are spoiled for choice when it comes to mythologized narratives of our history, but one that still occasionally entertains me is the 2000 Roland Emmerich film The Patriot. That film is harder to watch now that Mel Gibson has also shown his ass to the camera and walked away (mostly), but it’s always one I’ve always watched with a pretty hefty grain of salt. An action hero leads a group of guerrillas with muskets who win the American Revolution because unlike those stupid evil war-crimey Redcoats, these guys were the first paramilitary force in history to think of the brilliant tactic of shooting from behind cover. Apart from the preposterous action, the racial politics of that film were also a mess, with Gibson playing a fictionalized version of a slave-holding plantation owner, with the slaves conveniently transposed onto paid servants in Colonial South Carolina in 1776. Sure. I guess my point is: a decade ago, and a number of times since, I’ve spoken of Australia as a cinematic feast (a phrase I may have also borrowed from the /Filmcast). Now, I suppose I’d call it more of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not good for you, exactly, but it’ll fill you up. Judging Luhrmann’s undeniably loving tribute to his homeland in the same way as Emmerich’s blatant historical revisionism almost makes me give it a pass. Almost. But when it comes to laying out the details of painful chapters of institutional racism, we owe it to the future to do better. And to expand the pool of stories and storytellers to make sure those stories can be told properly.
FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10