The (Epistolary) Movie Review: 'Australia'

Dear Baz Luhrmann,

You have a problem, and the first step toward solving it is recognizing it: Despite your manifest gifts as a filmmaker, you can't do tragedy. And you need to stop trying.

Your 1992 debut, Strictly Ballroom, was an utter delight, a sprightly mélange of comedy and romance, dancing and music, attractive stars and cartoonish (but not irredeemable) villains. Since then, I fear, you've gotten badly off-track. We can set aside 1996's Romeo+Juliet for the moment, because I confess I have never made it through the film despite multiple attempts. Perhaps it's a complete misfire, or a matter of taste, or I have some rare neurological ailment. But within ten minutes of beginning the movie I develop a splitting headache that does not recede until I turn it off.

Your 2001 opus Moulin Rouge! is another matter. Lush, giddy, crammed to the gills with cleverly arranged pop ditties, it should have been a boffo entertainment. But for some incomprehensible reason, you decided that this dizzy daydream ought to be a tragedy. Allow me to explain something: There are movies in which people sing songs by Elton John and Madonna and Queen and Paul McCartney. And there are movies in which the heroine dies of tuberculosis. The Venn diagram of these two categories should not show any overlap, but thanks to Moulin Rouge! it does.

Your Broadway staging of La boheme in 2003 was a more limited mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. It's not that it was bad; it just wasn't particularly good. I saw it within a few months of a vastly less hyped production of the opera at the Kennedy Center, and the latter was considerably stronger. Again, tragedy. Again, tuberculosis. I trust you see the emerging pattern.

Which brings us to Australia. As in all your films, there are a lot of likable elements (as in most of them, often too many at once). There's humor and action and romance and loopy camera work and nostalgic nods to the popular music and cinema of the past. ("Oz" being a common nickname for Australia, we get to hear "Over the Rainbow" a lot.) But what might have worked as a buoyant throwback adventure yarn is instead weighted down with historical baggage, racial sermonizing, and, yes, frequent eruptions of tragedy.

One might imagine that in casting Nicole Kidman, one of the globe's most famous Aussies, in a movie titled Australia, you'd actually let her be, you know, Australian. No such luck. Her character's name, Lady Sarah Ashley, tells us pretty much everything we need to know. The first time we see the prim English lady she is striding across the Australian scrub as stiffly as a mime doing "schoolmarm." The only way the caricature could've been more broad is if you'd cast a man in drag.

Sarah has travelled from England to her husband's cattle ranch in the barren Northern Territory because she expects to find him engaged in some southern hemisphere hanky panky. Instead she finds him dead, run through by what is presumed to be an aborigine's spear. Sarah decides to get the ranch back on its feet herself, which becomes quite a bit harder after she fires the cruel ranch manager, Fletcher (David Wenham), for beating a sweet, mixed-race boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who lives on the property.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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