FILM REVIEW: Schlock on the barbie

Colonialist wrongs are put to rights in Baz Luhrmann’s sugary frontier saga

By Sebastian Smee  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BOSTON

Fri, Dec 26, 2008 - Page 16

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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).

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.”

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.

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