For an Australian, the most delightful and provocative thing about Australia, the new Baz Luhrmann movie, is its title. Just saying it aloud is like delivering the punch line of one of those long-winded campfire jokes that get funnier the longer they go on.
Unfortunately, just about everything else about the movie falls flat.
Yes, Australia is a joke — a campy, sentimental, hyper-theatrical concoction that tastes like a tropical cocktail and should really have been a musical. The problem is that somewhere along the line its makers forgot that it was a joke. They decided it should try to be something more — “a love letter to Australia,” as one early reviewer put it; or “just the film we needed to see,” in the words of Oprah Winfrey.
It decided, in other words, to come across as all unctuous and morally earnest. In the process it became a movie so kitsch and condescending that, as an Australian (I came to Boston from Sydney in May), all I want to do is look away.
But hang on, you’re wondering: What’s so funny about the title?
Unlike America, a land of storytellers with outsize ambitions (think American Beauty, American Pastoral, American Pie and so on), Australia has tended to be shy about telling its own story.
A lot of young nations feel similarly bashful. But Australia’s shyness is compounded by the circumstances of its formation.
It began, after all, as a convict settlement — a dumping ground for all the petty crooks and political prisoners who were spilling out of England’s floating prisons. On its way to independence, Australia fought no nation-defining war, it endured no civil war and, even after it became independent, it continued to cling to the apron strings of Empire. (To this day, Australia still has Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state.) Its two most cherished narratives of nationhood revolve around a bushranger (Ned Kelly) and a horrible defeat by the Turks as part of a joint British and French military campaign during World War I (Gallipoli).
DIRECTED BY: Baz Luhrmann
STARRING: Hugh Jackman (Drover), Ray Barrett (Bull), Nicole Kidman (Lady Sarah Ashley), Bryan Brown (King Carney), Tony Barry (Sergeant Callahan)
RUNNING TIME: 165 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: Showing
None of this should matter. Australia today is an affluent country with a diverse, enviably harmonious population inhabiting a continent of extraordinary beauty and singularity. And yet there is — there probably always will be — this lingering, B-grade anxiety about our status in the world.
Australian social commentator A.A. Phillips gave the uglier side of the phenomenon a name when he coined the term “cultural cringe.” He was referring to an internalized inferiority complex, a tendency to dismiss one’s own culture as second-rate.
But even as Australians live with cultural cringe, they are increasingly aware of how lucky they are, and how much they have to be proud of. A great deal of humor — alternately self-deprecating, ironically chest-thumping, and camp — is wrung from this dual awareness.
It’s in this context (with special emphasis on camp) that Baz Luhrmann’s Australia needs to be seen.
To come from a country that has always been nervous about telling its own story and then to spend US$130 million on a movie called Australia — a movie that plays with the broadest stereotypes, nods at Hollywood epics like Gone With the Wind and Out of Africa, and employs almost every recognized actor in the Australian film industry — is to indulge in a kind of outlandish inside joke.
Having seen it, all I can say is, it’s a pity they lost sight of the joke. It’s a pity, more particularly, that they decided to get involved with the most sensitive moral and political issue Australia has grappled with over the past few decades: the so-called “Stolen Generation.”