How dare Baz Luhrmann dare me as much as he does in Australia, the epic film that swept into the United States over Thanksgiving? Dare me to feel as much as I did? Dare me to abandon irony for that pre-ironic innocence that compels belief? And dare me to believe in wonder again, in a magic that has nothing to do with David Copperfield and everything to do with spirits and the genius of a land and the heart's territories?
There I sat in the Regal Union Square Stadium Theater on Broadway and 13th Street. I wept as love triumphed and hated the hard-of-feeling who snickered when the movie ended with an announcement that Australia had formally apologized for its racist past. For love and social justice were feeding on each other.
Australia is about both, but Luhrmann lavishly spreads the food of love before us. Two gorgeous people are romantically in love: Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), and the eponymous Drover (Hugh Jackman). She is the gorgeous aristocrat whom Australia transforms from a woman of hauteur to one of steel will and sensuality. He is the gorgeous man of the Aussie land who learns to love again, even if she is a Lady landowner and a Brit. Romantic love roils with family love: grandfathers for grandsons, mothers for children, brothers for brothers, and a half-caste child, the irresistible Nullah (Brandon Walters), for his dual families and their traditions.
Luhrmann demands that his audience love art and seduces us into doing so. He gives us awesome physical beauty, violent action (those stampedes), suspense, and for the cinematically knowing, metamorphic chains of visual images and generic references. Australia borrows from the romantic comedies in which lovers who hate each other suddenly realize that their snarls are the flip side of sexual passion. It samples the Western and its landscapes and horses as totemic animals.
Above all, Australia is a national epic. This is not the Australia of convicts disembarking on a fatal shore. This is the Northern Territories from 1939 to 1941, its deserts and mountains, its rains that pour down like a miracle, its competitive agricultural industries, its rough multicutural city of Darwin that the Japanese bomb, and its great Aboriginial arts and crafts of survival. Luhrmann's nation is viciously racist. Half-caste children, the members of the Stolen Generations, are snatched from their full-blood mothers and stashed in missionary schools, where they are trained to become servants for their white rulers.
Luhrmann dares us to imagine that a national epic can dramatize the eventual bringing together of colonizers and the colonized first settlers. His film score brilliantly weaves together the English tradition (a swelling Elgar's Enigma Variations that summoned my tears), the Australian "Waltzing Matilda," a Sir Elton John arrangement of "The Drover's Song," and Aboriginal mourning songs, spells, and incantations. The bad white guys, here a murderous cattle baron who has fathered the half-caste Nullah whom he would kill, will die. Lady Sarah must give up Nullah to his Aboriginal heritage, but he promises to sing his life to her, and she promises to hear him. As a national epic about race, Australia reverses D.W. Griffith's cruelly racist Birth of a Nation (1915)---a cinematic act parallel in its way to Obama's undoing of the bloody segregationist politics of the United States.
Like all romantics, Luhrmann also dares us to go to the edge of the probable and then leap over into the abyss of dreams. The overarching musical theme of Australia is "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Lady Sarah first sings it, hesitantly and then forcefully, as she comforts a Nullah grieving for his blood mother. Then an entranced Nullah hears it in a sweaty movie theater in Darwin. He next plays it on the harmonica of a dead white man, to be joined by an angelic chorus of mission school boys, rescued by boat from the Japanese by the Drover's aboriginal brother-in-law and a hotel keeper and Nullah's aboriginal uncle. He wll die sacrificially in this effort. Hearing these wisps of song over the waters, Lady Sarah races to the dock to be re-united amidst the carnage of battle with Nullah and the Drover.
Lurhmann's promise is that if we make the leap into the abyss of dreams, if we dare to wonder, we will land on a Yellow Brick Road or on a road whose composition we have yet to discover. Yes, the Wizard of Oz is a fraud, but Nullah's Aboriginal grandfather, warrior and guide to the land and a dancer among the spirits, practices an authentic magic.
In the Regal Ladies Room , my partner of several decades, an Australian who lived there until she was in her mid-thirties, pointed to the changing table for babies. Its name? Koala Kare. A national symbol of Australia, this cuddly koala grins out from a piece of metal. Kitsch and commercialism meet amidst the mirrors, sinks, and stalls. Luhrmann, I like to believe, would laugh. For the great arc of the rainbow---be it in Aboriginal myth, the Old Testament,or a Judy Garland performance---radiates over us all in this rash and beautiful storm of a movie.
Corny? Of course, as corny as Kansas in August.
Catharine R. Stimpson
New York City