Australia the film revisited

It has been more than four years since the November 2008 release of Baz Luhrmann’s film AustraliaCertainly it was the biggest Australian film in many years, and probably the most expensive Australian film ever made – ever.

Set in the Northern Territory in the late 1930s and early 1940s and presented as a classic “Western” love story between its two major stars – Nicole Kidman (playing Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat) and Hugh Jackman (simply known as “The Drover”), within the opening credits Australia the film rapidly identifies its major theme:  of Aboriginal reconciliation and the “stolen generations”.  This term refers to those Indigenous Australian children who were removed from their families as part of systematic policies of forced assimilation by Australian state and national governments.  This destructive policy lasted from 1909 to 1969 and resulted in the decimation of tens of thousands of Indigenous Australian families, the impact of which is still being widely felt throughout Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.  For more information about the ”stolen generations”, go to the following resources:

–  The Stolen Generations Fact Sheet, by Reconciliaction

– The Stolen Generations Alliance

– The original 1997 Bringing Them Home report resulting from the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, available from the website of the Australian Human Rights Commission and from the Indigenous Law Resources Reconciliation and Social Justice Library

The “stolen generations” have been the subject of other Australian films in the past, notably Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), directed by Phillip Noyce, and adapted from the Doris Pilkington novel Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (1996).  (For a review by Fiona A. Villella of that film, click here.)

Australia (the film) explores this theme particularly through the character of Nullah, played by Brandon Walters, an Aboriginal boy from Broome in his feature film debut, who was 11 years old at the time of the film’s production.  Walters gives an astonishingly natural and touching performance; his interaction with Nicole Kidman’s character becomes the real emotional core of the film, eclipsing the much-promoted Kidman-Jackman romance.  According to Baz Luhrmann at the time, Walters was to be “Australia’s next leading man” (well, not yet, anyway).

When he first began planning the film some years before production, there was no way that Baz Luhrmann could have known that Australia’s (then) new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, would (on February 13, 2008) issue a long-sought apology to the Indigenous peoples of Australia for the Stolen Generations.  (Click here for the complete text of the apology and Prime Minister Rudd’s speech; note pdf document of 41kb.)

The fact that the most expensive Australian film ever made has the Stolen Generations as one of its central themes is astonishing.  Although, to be fair, Australia the film has at least seven themes operating.  In addition to the Drover-Lady Ashley romance and the Indigenous mistreatment, there is the robber cattle barons (played by Bryan Brown and David Wenham), the challenging cattle drive to Darwin, the coming of age of Nullah – including his relationship with his grandfather (played by David Gulpilil), the disapproving Darwin “society” and – notably – the World War II impact on Australia, including the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 (more on this last theme shortly).  (Spoiler alert:  this review will now reveal some plot points, so stop reading NOW if for some reason you have not seen the film and want to be surprised when you do.)

The Indigenous themes of Australia extend beyond the plight of Nullah (who is indeed forcibly removed and taken to a mission on an island off Darwin, based on the Tiwi Islands).  Hugh Jackman’s character The Drover has an Aboriginal best mate, who, we discover is his former brother-in-law:  he was indeed previously married to an Aboriginal woman, who died when she was refused treatment in a hospital.

Despite Luhrmann’s best and well-meaning efforts, he has endured some withering criticism for his film’s Aboriginal concerns.  Writing in The Guardian (UK) on December 18, 2008, Australian expatriate social commentator Germaine Greer took issue with the praise of the film by Marcia Langton (Aboriginal studies professor at University of Melbourne: click here for Langton’s Melbourne Age response to Greer) and notes that Luhrmann has “created a new myth of national origin”.  She goes on to say that “Luhrmann’s fake epic, set in 1939, shows Aboriginal people as intimately involved in the development of the Lucky Country; the sequel would probably show Nullah, the Aborigine boy who narrates the film, setting up an Aboriginal corporation and using mining royalties to build a luxury resort on the shores of Faraway Bay.”

Sarcasm aside, Greer is on firmer ground when she points out that:

The camera does not travel to where the Aboriginal workers would have lived with their extended families in a collection of humpies – shelters made of bark and branches – with no clean water, no sanitation and no electricity.  As the humpies were not intended for continued habitation they would have been verminous and filthy; the workers would have been issued with a single set of work clothes, ditto.  Despite the appalling infant mortality rate, there would have been dozens of children of various shades.  The Aboriginal workers would not have been paid, but simply given poor-quality rations, because the station owner claimed the whole community as dependents.  Aborigines did virtually all the heavy work, fencing, mustering, castrating, branding, slaughtering, digging dams, making roads, gardening, washing and cleaning.  No attempt would have been made to educate Nullah or his mates.

These problems – poor living conditions, desperate poverty, illiteracy, institutionalised racism, remoteness and few chances of economic betterment, combined with family destruction – still bedevil Indigenous Australia, with achingly slow progress.

In a discussion on ABC Radio National’s Movietime program on November 27, 2008, Daniel Browning (producer-presenter of Radio National’s Indigenous arts and culture program Awaye!) was equally as scathing, calling Luhrmann’s Australia a “post-reconciliation fantasy”.

These criticisms were, perhaps, inevitable, and one of the key fantasies of Australia – that somehow an English lady in 1930s Northern Territory would become a surrogate mother to an effectively orphaned Aboriginal boy – presents such an unlikely scenario that it threatens to re-write the history of Aboriginal-white relations.

Luhrmann also re-wrote history when he showed a Japanese army landing party on an island off Australia just after the bombing of Darwin:  the Japanese did not, repeat, DID NOT, ever land on Australian soil and shoot Australians.  For more information on the bombing of Darwin, go to the Australian Government’s Culture and Recreation Portal article or the National Archives of Australia fact sheet, which notes that “The air attacks on Darwin continued until November 1943, by which time the Japanese had bombed Darwin 64 times.  During the war other towns in northern Australia were also the target of Japanese air attack, with bombs being dropped on Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.”

And yet.  And yet.  Luhrmann does succeed in presenting a vision, fantastical as it may seem, of an Australia where whites and blacks do get along.  Racism is there in his film, and it is palpable, and the results are obvious and explicit.  It’s just not realistic, and far from complete.  It’s only a movie, and a Baz Luhrmann movie at that.  From Strictly Ballroom to Romeo + Juliet to Moulin Rouge! , Luhrmann has never been a “realist” director.  Why ever would he start being one now?

Postscripts on the reception of Australia:

On 7 January 2009, the Sydney Morning Herald and reported:

In the 5½ weeks since its premiere, Australia has taken $28.8 million….  Locally the film has been a hit in the very place it romanticises, regional and rural Australia.  Greater Union’s national film manager, Bill McDermid, said yesterday that the film had done particularly well in Canberra, Toowoomba, Cairns and Mackay. “Positive word of mouth in our regional cinemas is driving excellent attendances.”

Australia was filmed in a number of outback locations, including Darwin (NT), Kununurra and various East Kimberley locations (WA) and Bowen (QLD), as well as at Fox Studios and various historic houses in Sydney.  The film had four simultaneous premieres in Australia on 18 November 2009:  one in each of the cities above.

Michael Bodey reported in The Australian (Friday 16 January 2009, page 5) that Australia (the film) was far and away the biggest Australian film at the box office in 2008, earning $26.9 million by the end of the year.  It represented more than 75% of all Australian film box office takings last year, which made it a sad moment for Australian film-making generally when all the other 32 films only grossed $8.6 million.  Australia was ultimately the sixth biggest film of the year, behind The Dark Knight  (although it was still going strong on 31st December 2008).  While Australia did not do particularly well in North America, it was been quite popular in both Europe and Asia.

The film received one Academy Awards (Oscar) nomination – for “Best Costume Design” for Catherine Martin (although she did not win).  The film has also received four Film Critics Circle of Australia nominations:  for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (young Aboriginal actor Brandon Walters), Best Cinematography (Mandy Walker) and Best Score (David Hirschfelder).

Ultimately Australia the film became the second highest grossing Australian film (unadjusted for inflation).  The DVD was released in Australia in early April 2009, while the film was still playing in a few Australian cinemas.  Responding to the claim of one British critic that the film left “no cliche unturned”, Luhrmann responded that this comment misunderstood the nature of melodrama, which “has been the building block of storytelling in cinema since the form was invented”.  Take that, you doubters.

Trailer for the film below:

(Next stop:  The Great Gatsby).

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