Seventy years ago, Gone With The Wind blew across the movie screens of America and became, for many, the quintessential American movie. GWTWand The Wizard of Oz, also made in 1939, were for decades the definition of the Hollywood spectacular and a road map for how American ingenuity and innovation could bring a degree of enlightenment to a pop culture phenomenon. Now Australia, a movie directed by Australian Baz Luhrman and starring Australians Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, comes along and reinvents the epic romantic movie genre of the one while fully embracing the fantasy movie genre of the other. Sung with delightful awkwardness by Kidman, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” becomes the leitmotif of the film.
Luhrman has said that he wants to make movies that fully engage the audience in a participatory experience, which never lets them forget that they are watching a movie. He calls it the Red Curtain discipline. His first trilogy of films, Strictly Ballroom, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge are spectacularly theatrical. They exist by, for and about performance.
Australia is a departure because, without being a remake, it takes a film story that is familiar to everyone who knows classic American films – the headstrong lady of breeding meets the equally independent man of nature, they clash, work together against evil, fall in love and vanquish the oppressor – and it re-imagines it. It is a romance novel melodrama, a paper-thin story writ across the face of the incredible landscape of Australia and infused with all the magic and mystery of the Aboriginal culture that has lived there for millennium.
It is filmmaking of the highest order. But it goes on too long. There are two films here. The first as I described before, the second after the man and the woman have come together and saved the homestead, when they must defend it and defend their love from each other and from the pressures of the outside world. And then there are the Japanese and the authoritarian forces of the government of Australia.
The whole film takes place during the early stages of WWII and immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, after witnessing the incredible natural beauty of the island continent, the special effects of the bombing of the port city of Darwin are so obviously artificial that they take you out of the film. They look like effects shots we have seen in many contemporary films about war and you begin to check your watch. Every frame is deliberate and filled to the edges with the violence of warfare. And no doubt it is his intention to contrast the beauty of the natural landscape with the numbing imprint that man and his wars have upon the face of the planet. But at this length, it becomes disjointed.
Luhrman steals nakedly from many of the iconic epics of American popular cinematic culture, including the Western. In the first half, with the laconic rush to consummation of the love, the embrace of the mystery of a natural world that begs us to sing along with it, and the joy of freedom and wildness, he has more pleasing archetypes from which to steal. In the second half, as civilization destroys itself and even tries to consume the love which created it, there are not such good icons from which to steal.
Jackman easily inherits the Gable, Cooper, Bogart mantle of the man just inches removed from nature, the man who prefers to live outdoors without a roof over his head. And Kidman is hilarious as the stiff upper lipped English lady to the manor born who is used to being obeyed by everyone. Together with Luhrman they are obviously deeply in love with their homeland and objective but still proud of it’s history. And they have a great time doing it.
I thought Titanic might contrast well with Australia. I was not a fan when it opened 12 years ago. But with Australia, it works. It’s a better popcorn movie. Simpler, plainer, with not nearly the artistry or the passion of Baz Luhrman’s picture, but it works better. It works as a love story and it works as an epic.
I think everyone must have seen it at least once so there is no reason to recap the story. The upper and lower classes are pitted against each other in predictable ways and there is no edge to the dynamic. The sinking of the ship is spectacular. Leonardo DeCaprio is still a boy, a charmingly clever one at that, and completely believable as such. Kate Winslet is pretty, not classically beautiful, but spirited and her emotions dance across her face, and she has such intelligence that of course the bright boy from the other side of the tracks falls in love with her and how could she not turn to him and away from her brute of a fiancé as played by the clownish Billy Zane.
Everything in Titanic is as you would expect it to be and it works the way it has always worked. It doesn’t surprise, it doesn’t demand any more than the normal passive participation that an ordinary movie does. It is bigger and more spectacular than most. And it has made more money than any other movie in history. Timing must indeed be everything. It is in romance.