Baz Luhrmann’s new ‘myth of Australia’

In presenting the artist and aborigines as natural aristocrats who rise above ‘common cruelty’, Australia turns history into a moral fable.

Guy Rundle

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It is rare for a government minister to interfere in the workings of a national sports team, but that is what Jack Lang, the culture minister of France, did in 1995. He directed the nation’s Olympic synchronised swimming team to change their proposed act – one in which, wearing black one-piece bathing suits, they goose-stepped into the swimming pool and did a routine roughly depicting the plot of Schindler’s List. The team and their coach were apparently devastated – all they had been trying to do was use their talents to depict man’s inhumanity to man in a way that no one else had done before. Surely, they asked, that was the right of every artist?

Australia, the new epic movie melodrama by Baz Luhrmann, never really ascends to those heights of jaw-dropping kitsch, but it’s in the zone. This £80million extravaganza starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman – a sweeping story of cattle wars in 1940s Australia, the fraught and brutal nature of black-white relations, and the Japanese bombing of Darwin – has become a cause célèbre in Australia, with director and stars inviting the entire country to see it as an expression of a hope for ‘new beginnings’, presumably in race relations. Luhrmann has also been put in charge of a £20million tourism campaign, of which the film itself becomes the figurehead, national drama morphing into national PR.

The film is a mess. It tells us very little about the real conditions of mid-century rural Australia, but rather more about the hard times into which much Australian culture has fallen – and the manner in which complex history can be pressed into the service of simple morality tales.

Stolen generations

Australia is the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a young well-born English woman, who comes out to Australia to find her wayward husband, who is running their cattle station – Faraway Downs – in the Northern Territory. She suspects that his enthusiasm for cattle-ranching covers a taste for dallying with local aboriginal women. Finding him dead, she decides to stay and run the station herself, to the derision of local men – including ‘King’ Carney, a rival station owner, who has been trying to squeeze the Ashleys out of their land and take it over.

During her time there, Lady Sarah forms a spiritual bond with a ‘half-caste’ (that is, a half-aboriginal, half-white) 10-year-old boy, Nullah. Played by newcomer Brandon Douglas, Nullah has to hide repeatedly from the white authorities that are determined to bring him into custody, as part of the government’s ‘stolen generations’ child-removal policies (a policy helpfully explained in a title card before the movie proper – Luhrmann doesn’t seem to trust his own abilities to explain it within the story itself).

Determined to save Faraway Downs, Lady Sarah decides to drive her 1,500 head of cattle to Darwin, where they can be sold. Assisting her in this is the station’s roustabout, known only as ‘the Drover’ (Hugh Jackman), a smouldering source of sexual tension. Arriving in Darwin with their cattle and with Nullah – who is captured by the authorities and taken to an island church mission – Kidman and Co. are just in time for the Japanese bombing of the city, in 1942. Rescuing the children on the island mission from encroaching Japanese forces, Kidman and Jackman then stand up to a pub owner in the smouldering ruins of the city, who refuses to serve their aboriginal friend, whom he labels a ‘boong’. As Nullah, Lady Sarah and the Drover return to Faraway Downs, they meet ‘King George’ (David Gulpilil), a mysterious traditional aboriginal figure, who has hovered in scenes throughout the movie, without us fully knowing whether he is real or supernatural. Nullah goes ‘walkabout’ with King George, reunited with his people at last, the rift created by the stolen-generations policy reconciled and healed.

Aristocratic anti-racism

There’s more, much more, than this, in a film nearly three hours long, and cut down from a longer first version so brutally that there are jarring leaps from one scene to another. And though the names – Lady Sarah, Faraway Downs, ‘the Drover’ – offer a hint of the millsandboonish approach that will be taken by the director, nothing really prepares you for the full impact of Luhrmann (who has made his career on films of rococo artifice) dealing with the Australian desert landscape, and a story grounded, however vestigially, in real history.

With the movie’s plot wrapped around a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, there is a great deal of lurid Technicolor and a high-end magical gloss, together with masses of half-convincing CGI, of scenes that would have proved unfilmable (cattle running beside a deep ravine, for instance). Bolted into painfully tight, quasi-uniform dresses, Kidman is half-prepubescent girl, half-dominatrix, clicking her heels and admonishing the locals in a ridiculous posh accent. If there’s a presiding influence over the visual style, it’s Douglas Sirk, whose 1950s melodramas (consider Written on The Wind) attempted to create a visual critique of suffocating American postwar life, by having domestic interiors and objects so high-coloured and overdesigned that they crowded out any sense of spontaneous and natural existence altogether. Applying this aesthetic to a story set in the sparsest landscape on Earth is, well, brave, to say the least.

Luhrmann has called his film ‘my myth of Australia’. Yet while authors and artists of course have some leeway in reconstructing a period, the problem for Luhrmann is that he has named his ‘myth’ after a whole country. The most egregious error in his movie (the Japanese never really got troops anywhere on Australian soil) is probably the least significant. Of far more consequence is the relatively large number of characters – Lady Sarah, the Drover, and others – who define themselves in opposition to the race relations of the time, and in particular to the eugenics-inspired attitude that dictated the child-removal policies. With all these white folks around treating aboriginal people as full equals, it makes you wonder how there was ever any racism in the first place.

In truth, the vast majority of northern Australians at the time were practical people who had no real reason to question the explicit racialism bound up in the notion of Australia as a representative of the Empire and Commonwealth. By the 1930s, most nomadic tribal aboriginal people had been gathered into church-run missions, or were working on cattle stations as ‘jackaroos’ (farmhands, herders) and indentured servants. Legally without citizenship, they were forbidden by law from leaving the properties they worked on (most of which were the size of an English county), and were paid in kind, with meat, salt, blankets, and so on.

There was, in other words, little way to be a cattle rancher, such as Lady Sarah aspires to be, without subscribing to a set of relations and ideas that assumed a natural superiority of white over black. In fact, the other part of that racialist policy – systematic child-removals intended to minimise the number of mixed-race people and eventually dissolve the aboriginal race altogether – derived not from the cartoonish cruelty that Luhrmann’s film evokes, but from a mixture of pity, scientism and an unreflective presumption about what ‘must be done’. Territory policeman had to have the ‘kindness’ of the policy repeatedly impressed upon them, as some found the process of removal, and the distress of children and adults, practically unbearable.

None of this mix of complex and contradictory attitudes gets into the film. Luhrmann makes the leading anti-racist figure a British woman, and the most explicitly racist character an East European pub owner in Darwin (it was those damn Slovaks! They were the racists!). Deliberately or otherwise, this plays into some strange hierarchical idea of decency – Lady Sarah being the only one of sufficiently aristocratic character to be above baser attitudes. That seems bizarre until you realise that, in this scenario, Lady Sarah is essentially standing in for the director himself, and the Australian artist in general, as an essentially alien and more noble figure, rising above the compromises and cruelties of the country’s history, and ultimately – in the form of the film itself – acting as the nation’s conscience.

At one point, Lady Sarah sings ‘Over the Rainbow’ to Nullah, and he equates it with the common aboriginal myth of the rainbow as a world-creating giant serpent. The hitherto mysterious role of The Wizard of Oz and its central message – that you are the road you are travelling down, that a story is about your journey to completeness – becomes clear in the self-celebration of the artist and aborigines as natural aristocrats, rising above the common muck of commerce and cruelty.

Luhrmann’s child’s-eye view

Having grown up in rural Australia as the son of a picture-theatre owner, Luhrmann was presumably always going to make this film. But despite his prodigious visual talents, he is hopelessly out of his depth here. His previous trio of films – Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge – were built around frivolous conceits, controlled artificial environments, a pile of cinematic references, and a lack of connection to anything real. A lot of people like these movies, but what is striking is their lack of thematic imagination, their unerring ability to hit the same level of fantasy as a Smash Hits poster.

Australia partly pulls in that direction. In its costuming, its acting style, its names, it displays a deep urge to be a parodic comic melodrama, all twirled moustaches and faux gentility. But this conceit is set within a movie that has to grapple with a sublime and overpowering landscape, and visceral human relations. Though there are references to half-a-dozen Westerns, Luhrmann never allows the endless horizons and ahuman textures of wilderness to impose themselves, as John Ford did with Monument Valley. Instead, the endless helicopter shots and jumpy cutting diminish nature, rendering it as merely picturesque.

One repeated reference the film makes is to the Australian novelist Xavier Herbert, whose two great novels – Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country – explored the full complexity of white-black relations, the mix of respect, contempt, disdain and envy, sexual passion and violence that went back and forth across the racial lines. If Herbert’s work said anything, it was the same message you find in Conrad, Greene, Naipaul and others: that the best and the worst dwell in the same person, that no one at the frontier knows what they are capable of, or how much they will be transformed by it. Luhrmann’s work, in the face of these books of experience, is, by contrast, all innocence; it is striking for that fact that it is essentially a child’s eye view, pre-adult, pre-sexual. Luhrmann even falls short of the genuine menace that animated the ‘Oz’ books – the best adjective to describe Australia would be ‘Blytonesque’.

All in all, it’s a childish and limited film now, and a ‘good bad movie’ classic of the future. And yet it has had an overwhelmingly uncritical reaction from critics in Australia. Why?

Marketing the myth of Australia

David Stratton, Australia’s leading film critic, and a key figure in the Australian new wave cinema of the 1970s, argues that ‘at about the 20-minute mark, the film settles down into what it should have been from the start: a romantic melodrama set in 1939-41 against breathtaking backdrops and a homage to the golden age of Hollywood… For all its flaws – and Australia is not the masterpiece we hoped it might be – the film is easy to take.’

This sentiment is repeated in other reviews, as though everyone had simply given up on demanding that a historical film have a dynamic engagement with its own history. Yet most Australian critics should by now be wearily familiar with the standard images in Australia: aboriginal people as especially wise and good; racism as a product of bad people distorting a pure-of-heart nation; travelogue landscape shots, and so on. They should also be more sceptical of the familiar conceit used by Luhrmann of shoehorning Australia’s sprawling and untidy history into stories drawn from other sources, particularly the American western. Like the incomparably better film The Proposition, Australia constructs the outback as another West, cattle-rustling’n’all. Yet by the 1930s, northern Australia was dominated by British-based agribusiness, in particular the Vestey family, and beef production was a systematic and rather boring operation. That matters as a distortion, because a lot of the struggle and conflict in rural Australia was class-based – the shearers’ strikes of the 1890s, cane-cutters in the 1920s and 30s, and eventually the Wave Hill strikes of 1967 by aboriginal workers on a Vestey property, which inaugurated the modern land rights movement.

All of this – and the gloss on culturally embedded racialism, and the fictive rendering of the Second World War – should have been of concern to Australian critics. After all, when the Australian film industry was revived with state funding in the 1970s, the primary argument made for it was that we needed to ‘tell our own stories’. That produced some great, hard-edged, historical realist films – The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Newsfront, Sunday Too Far Away – whose writers and directors felt themselves to be part of a left nationalist movement, reasserting a truer account of the country’s development in order to counter a received version that glossed over political conflicts crucial to Australia’s formation. But that left nationalism rose and fell with the exhaustion of the 1960s radical moment in the 1970s, and the rise of globalisation and a world culture made it irrelevant to many – especially the new generation of filmmakers who were coming through newly-established film schools and whose imagination tended to be wholly bound up within cinema history.

By the 1990s, governments, both Labor and Liberal (that is, conservative), saw the culture industries less as something to be supported in the pursuit of excellence for its own sake than as an adjunct to marketing Australia as a brand in the development of new industries – tourism, wine, design – that might replace fading ones such as wool and wheat. This push coincided with a shift in the nature of popular cinema, which, since Star Wars, had become increasingly spectacle-based, leaving audiences with a different set of expectations about what a film should be. Incapable of matching Hollywood budgets, and with audiences showing diminishing interest in historical drama, Australian cinema diverted into quirky, deliberately kitschy comedy (Muriel’s Wedding) and endless coming-of-age stories by young filmmakers who then went to Hollywood to fail to develop blockbusters for five or 10 years, before returning to Australia to direct Home and Away episodes.

Some of these smaller films – Jane Campion’s Sweetie, or the recently released Black Balloon – are pretty good. But they are minority tastes, and no one in government has had the courage to say that the pursuit of excellence demands giving people a chance to develop their vision, which inevitably results in a high-yield of failures, interesting and otherwise.

The upshot is that by the time Australia came around, everyone was so desperate for a reminder of what a homegrown cinema had once meant to people, both the cultural elites and wider audiences, that they were willing to grab on to anything and anyone with the will to do something big and ambitious. Luhrmann’s Australia marks the point at which that critical nationalism becomes wholly collapsed into the advertising of the country itself. The government point man for the film was not the arts minister, but the tourism minister Martin Ferguson, who stated: ‘This movie will potentially be seen by tens of millions of people, and it will bring life to little-known aspects of Australia’s extraordinary natural environment, history and indigenous culture.’ Tourism Australia, the government body, worked with the filmmakers while the film was in production on a ‘see the movie, see the country’ campaign. There’s nothing wrong with someone making a buck or two off the merchandising, but Luhrmann doesn’t seem to have realised that the films he was inspired by – Oz, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind – were all, however limited in many ways, conceived as autonomous works of art, by people who knew they had to shoot high to hit even the middle.

Australia, by contrast, is just supremely irritating in its lack of engagement with the real, and the failure of imagination manifested in its total recourse to fantasy. But Luhrmann was hardly alone in its commission. The film also speaks to a government that can conceive of nothing more to do for its country than market it.

Luhrmann is good at what he does, but history and epic ain’t it. Even the most dramatic scenes – like when Nullah’s mother drowns in a water tank while hiding from the police – are diminished, undersold by bright colours and jumpy shooting; an apparent inability to let tragedy speak. Nothing in his oeuvre or approach really suggests Luhrmann was up to the task of this film, but everyone wanted to click their heels and believe that he was. Sadly, tracking his way out of the Moulin Rouge by way of the Yellow Brick Road, Baz didn’t realise that he isn’t in can-cans anymore.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Election. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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