I love Howard Hawks' films...Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Red River, and Rio Bravo are amazing pieces of entertainment. As I was watching Australia, the new Baz Luhrmann movie with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, I kept thinking...man, Baz must really love Hawks' movies, too.
As evidenced by the films above, the mismatched couple who fight and fight until they realize they're perfect for each other (see Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, and Moonlighting as other examples of the form) and the group of underestimated misfits who come together to fight evil are two big elements used again and again by Hawks. Throw in a bit of John Ford's The Searchers and its hard look at racism leading to inhuman deeds and mix well and you have...Australia.
The problem modern audiences may have with Luhrmann's new movie is it's very, very earnest. This is straight ahead epic storytelling with its heart on its sleeve and hat and boots with never a wink to the crowd in the theater to say "ain't these people quaint". You either buy in or you don't. If you do, like I did, you're in for a hell of a ride.
This, I feel, is the flip-side to The Dark Knight. Good and evil are trapped in something akin to a battle and an embrace in Nolan's Gotham City. You root for Batman, but he does stuff that is on the wrong side of freedom and civil rights. The Joker is pure crazy, but he's the most mesmerizing character in the film. In Australia, there are good guys and bad guys and you are either really good or twirl your mustache evil. The main villain actually may be a bit too two-dimensional in that aspect, but it didn't hurt my overall enjoyment.
Why? Well, epic melodrama is hard to pull off...I'm talking about the real stuff here. The recent BBC production of Bleak House is a great example. There are very good and very, very bad people in that story, but the acting is so fantastic you rarely if ever catch yourself rolling your eyes (like whenever I've watched Smallville...see: bad epic melodrama). Kidman and Jackman sell their characters...the displaced Englishwoman and the rough-hewn "Drover". They are thrown together just to, initially it seems, thwart a nasty cattle baron from monopolizing the beef industry in the country. But the other big story, the main one in fact, centers around Australia's "lost generation". These were Aboriginal children who were fathered by white men who didn't claim them. They were taken by the government, the mothers had no rights, and handed over to the church to be taught to "act white" and then work in the servant class. Nullah, played by the fantastic child actor Brandon Walters, is one of these "creamies" who has been hidden on the ranch now owned by Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman). Lady Ashley discovers what is going on, is horrified by the law, and works to keep him hidden as well. Why the Drover cares so much about Nullah becomes clear later in the film (no, it's not what you think...that would be too easy) and Jackman's experience with stage and musical work does him proud here. He can do earnest better than almost any actor alive when he needs to and his later use of the f-word (the only curse I can remember from the entire film) hits so hard, in just the right emotional moment, that it kills. Russell Crowe was originally cast as the Drover but backed out. If Crowe had done the film, and I have liked him in other things...the Napoleon-era British navy film that I can't remember the name of right now, it would not have worked. Crowe never loses that bit of edge and the Drover, at one point, really has to fully break down and become completely vulnerable. Jackman shines at that point.
Anyway...a warning, the movie is long 2 hours and 40something minutes, but I didn't realize that until I had left the theater. I saw it alone...I was out of town at a pediatrics meeting...and that's a good thing. I didn't have to hide from Holly the few times the movie hit me a bit too hard and do that cough-throat clearing thing we dudes do to cover up a stray tear.
My top movies for this year so far...
2. Dark Knight
3. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
4. Iron Man
5. Indiana Jones
I still haven't seen Happy-Go-Lucky and Quantum of Silence yet, though...