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Australia - how was it for you?

Nick Bryant | 11:02 UK time, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

To those who have never lived in Australia, the names Margaret and David will not be instantly recognisable. Perhaps they might conjure up a folk band from the 1960s (but that was Peter, Paul and Mary) or a series of helpful how-to-read books that you might have perused as a child (although that was Janet and John).

For the uninitiated, Margaret and David are the Siskel and Ebert of Australia: the country's most famous and distinguished film reviewers, whose weekly programme, At the Movies, is appointment viewing for anyone in the industry, and for many outside it. I, for one, never miss it.

Margaret Pomeranz is a pixie-like bundle of energy, bubbly, infectious and kindly, who I reckon always gives Aussie movies an extra half a star. She's almost like a midwife to the home-grown movie industry, exhibiting maternal disapproval when films fall short and enormous motherly pride when they do well. David Stratton is more like the strict father, or a humourless headmaster perhaps, who, according to the title of his memoirs, once "peed" on Federico Fellini.

presser_b203_ap.jpgI mention all this because now that Baz Luhrmann's Australia is in general release, I want to give you the chance to play Margaret and David. Normally, we solicit your comments. Now we want your reviews.

I got a sneak preview of the movie the other night, and came out thinking that some of the Aussie reviews have been a bit mean-spirited and harsh. We'll save the discussion of the "cultural cringe" and the "tall poppy syndrome" for another blog, but the critical response to Australia might have provided glaring examples of both.

As one would expect from the director of Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet, Baz Luhrmann's Australia is staggeringly beautiful. The staging is lavish, the score has an epic sweep, the cinematography is gorgeous and the film has what most Australian films have never been able to afford: towering ambition.

This is the most expensive film ever shot on Australian soil - and it looks like the most expensive film ever shot on Australian soil. The creative force behind it, Mark Anthony Luhrmann, is surely a national treasure. So, too, is his wife, Catherine Martin, the production designer of his films.

Much of the pre-release publicity, of course, focussed on the on-screen romance between Nicole Kidman, who plays a straight-laced British aristocrat whose family owns land at the Top End of Australia, and Hugh Jackman, who plays a rough-hewn cattle drover.

But the more intriguing plotline involves Nullah, the young Aboriginal boy played by 10-year-old Brandon Walters, who steals the movie. Serving as the film's narrator, Nullah is the guide as Luhrmann explores the breach between black and white Australia, and the misplaced sense of racial superiority that lay behind the Stolen Generations. In the hands of a lesser director, this could all have been a bit heavy-handed. But far stronger than Luhrmann's critique of white racial mores is the celebration of Aboriginal culture as proud, rich and ancient. In dealing with indigenous themes, some films have focussed solely on the negative: the decades of mistreatment and the myriad injustices. Australia is more affirming, and accentuates a sense of Aboriginal pride.

There are other things that the world could usefully take from this movie. Many global viewers will not be aware, for instance, that Darwin in the Northern Territory was attacked by the Japanese during World War II, a historical chapter which provides the cinematic coda. Then there's the performance of the relatively little-known Aussie actor, David Wenham, who plays the land-hungry villain of the piece. The Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil is mesmerising as "King George", Nullah's maternal grandfather. Reassuringly, we even get a five-second glimpse of the great Bill Hunter, whose role this time involves squeezing Nicole Kidman's bottom, a duty he performs with aplomb.

Certainly, there are flaws. Certainly, there are a few too many cliches and a few too many crikeys. In their portrayals of an uptight Pom and a down and dirty Aussie, Nicole and Hugh ham and camp it up a bit too much at the beginning. Watching the opening scenes, some might think that the pantomime season has come a few weeks early. To be fair, their performances are very affecting by the end.

Still, there's a strong likelihood that you might have forgotten the opening scenes by the closing credits, which speaks of another problem: Baz could surely have lost at least 15 of his 165 minutes somewhere along the way. One American critic has suggested the film comes with its own sequel (it actually could have been longer - Baz Luhrmann shot 2.7 million feet of film). It is indeed episodic, with four films packed into one: a romance, a western, a war flick and a tale of racial woe.

Some film-goers doubtless would have preferred Cate Blanchett, who does not appear in Australia, to have played the female lead. Peevish British viewers, like me, might bemoan another small, but presumably budget-busting, detail: the scene set in the English countryside was clearly not filmed in the English countryside. But I digress.

Perhaps Australia does fall short of being a classic or a masterpiece, as David Stratton has suggested, but there's a romantic lurking deep inside of me who came out thinking it had come pretty close.

So four stars from me. Now, over to you...


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