Never Never: Baz Luhrmann’s AUSTRALIA
31 July 2011
In his first film post-Red Curtain Trilogy, Baz Luhrmann set out to make the historical epic for Australian cinema. During production and upon release, Luhrmann himself likened Australia to the Victor Fleming classic Gone With the Wind, one of leading American (and perhaps world-wide) historical epics. Australia is like Gone With the Wind in narrative structure and cinematics. Both films capture a woman confronting society, as the role she is conditioned to perform in the world changes, in part due to a real-life historical event. Both films place a strong visual emphasis on the terrain with long, sweeping shots, making the land a character in the film. And, both films are full of subplots, exaggerating the respective sagas. Luhrmann succeeded in his quest to make an epic of equal visual stature, yet, beneath the surface, the critical and popular response to Luhrmann’s film were a far cry from Fleming’s success. In fact, particularly in America, Australia did not fare well with audience, likely for one, or more of these three reasons.
First, what works in Gone With the Wind will never work in a contemporary film. In 1939, when Gone With the Wind was released, cinema was young; Hollywood was young. Until 1939, audiences never saw how grand cinema could be. Fleming’s film was a spectacle that pushed the envelope; the film was a first of its kind, an original.
Had Gone With the Wind been released in the 1950s or 1960s, after Hollywood and competing industries grew, likely, it would not receive the same attention it did in 1939. Thus, while Australia involves clever, complex cinematics, advanced even for its time, and utilizes effectively the technology available, Australia lacks the originality that put Gone With the Wind on the map. Moreover, Australia faced stronger competition, on every level (including visual), than Fleming’s film did. Namely, Australia competed with the blockbuster sensation The Dark Knight (directed by Christopher Nolan), a feast for the eyes released only four months before Australia.
Second, looking back at Gone With the Wind while making Australia may have accidentally tarnished Luhrmann’s film with antiquated ideals that contemporary audiences did not favor. For example, The Drover (Hugh Jackman) never gets a name. Initially, his lack of name suggests his rank in the (also antiquated) class system of the time. However, as he and Sarah (Nicole Kidman) fall in love his name remains a mystery. Without a name The Drover lacks a complete identity. Details like this may have been less noticeable 70 years ago, but in 2008 it seems backwards.
And third, aside from audience’s high visual expectations and distaste for out-of-date ideas about society, viewers may feel ripped-off by Australia. In 1982 Igor Auzins, another Australian director, released his film We of the Never Never—derived from autobiographical material. In short, Auzins’s film, an Australian classic, is about an aristocratic woman, Jeannie Gunn, who follows her husband to the Never Never of Australia, where he has bought a large ranch. Overcoming her own prejudices, Jeannie befriends Aborigines, even taking on a maternal role with one specific Aboriginal child. Additionally, Jeannie must adjust to the wild, cruel terrain. Set at the turn of the century, Jeannie’s journey throughout the film is one of sacrifice, growth, and acceptance. Basically, Australia is dangerously close, in plot, to We of the Never Never. Although differences between the films exit, Australia is more than influenced by Auzin’s film. For those who have seen We of the Never Never, Australia, although stunning, feels like a cookie-cutter, sexualized knock-off.
While nothing can diminish Australia’s visual presence, the reality is Australia has been done before, visually by Fleming in Gone With the Wind and though plot by Auzin in We of the Never Never.