Earlier this year, while Luhrmann’s Australia was still in production, the country’s recently elected prime minister, Kevin Rudd, delivered a formal apology to Aboriginal people affected by a past government policy that saw Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families by government agencies and church missions.
Rudd’s predecessor, John Howard, had for many years refused to offer an official apology, resisting what he called “the black armband” view of Australia’s history, and arguing that such policies had often been carried out with the best of intentions.
Rudd’s apology — one of the first actions he took as prime minister — was watched by the whole nation and greeted with a flood of emotion and relief. It was an important, and overdue, symbolic gesture.
But it was played out against a reality less easily mended by words.
Last year, it became clear that the plight of Aboriginal communities in some parts of the country was so dire (sexual abuse of children and extreme alcoholism were rampant) that a national emergency was declared, the army was called in, and the specter of more forced removals — for the good of children being subjected to sustained sexual abuse — was raised.
The moral ironies, not to mention the underlying tragedy, of the situation hardly need emphasizing.
But what was Baz Luhrmann cooking up while all this was going on? A peppy, jingoistic movie, part tourism advertisement, part Broadway musical, full of bright color and friendly irony, with a plot line that involves — guess what? — an attempt at forcibly removing an Aboriginal child from his mother.
The mother is drowned during the attempted abduction; the boy is adopted by the film’s white heroine, an English aristocrat played by Nicole Kidman, whom the child calls “Mrs Boss”; and the boy eventually returns to the culture of his ancestors.
Perhaps it’s not worth taking offense at such a cartoon. But was it really such a great idea to bring the film’s dominant tone of camp and high artifice to subject matter that is still so raw and real?
Now that Rudd has delivered his formal apology, I suspect many Australians want to let themselves off the hook over the “Stolen Children” issue. In this sense, Luhrmann’s film has captured the national mood.
“The simplest thing to say about this [movie],” said Kidman, “is it’s a celebration — for me and hopefully for this country.”
Well, we all love a celebration. But sometimes a nation is shy about telling its stories for a reason.