PERTH, Western Australia — With a couple of misgivings, I recently joined some friends to see the film Australia. It turned out to be neither as good nor as bad as it might have been.
It was nice of the Australian government to give what amounted one way and another to about $80 million of tax-payers’ money to 20th Century Fox (owned by the umbrella company of that well-known pauper Mr. Rupert Murdoch), to help finance the film, but at the end of the day one cannot call it much more than a moderately successful piece of entertainment and a good travelogue. The concluding wrap about the fact that an apology for the “stolen generation” was issued by the Prime Minister in 2008 might have been more informative with the words, “This is a paid political advertisement by the present Australian government.”
In fact, the whole story of the so-called “stolen generation” is complex and remains controversial. Some, not all, part-Aboriginal children were taken into care because they were not accepted by either white or Aboriginal society. Whether they were torn from loving mothers and exploited in menial work or rescued from death or terrible deprivation remains a matter of debate, and the safest thing to say is that it is impossible to generalize. The number involved also remains very uncertain. Here, however, all is made simple.
Clichés flourish like a herd of kangaroos (in fact, there actually is a herd of kangaroos). The rich cattle-king (Australian version of a cattle-baron) is of course a crook, and his overseer is a murderer. The society ladies of Darwin are ugly, racist and mean-spirited, the Aborigines are innocent, loving, noble and wise, and the Chinese cook is jolly yet inscrutable. The obligatory drunk eventually redeems himself and dies bravely (in a scene which, to my considerable embarrassment, I found actually quite moving). Australian drovers are shown wearing revolvers, as if expecting Jesse James or Billy the Kid to dry-gulch them at any moment. In a climactic confrontation in the bombed ruins of Darwin the villain turns out to be the young hero’s father, adding a touch of Star Wars, his Aboriginal grandfather taking the role of Obe-Wan, not to mention those of Gandalf and Dumbledore.
Still, simplistic is what this film is about. It is basically a very lavish comic-book. I was not quite sure that the first half-hour or so was not written by Barry Humphries as a caricature of Australian stereotypes, and this level of characterization is pretty well maintained throughout.
However, religious susceptibilities are not offended much. I expected the Catholic mission, where, in the film, the half-caste children dread being sent, to be portrayed as a hell-hole staffed by sadistic hot-eyed fanatics or child-molesters, but in fact the mission seems a happy enough place, with the children playing by the sea.
The priest comes across as a rather silly-sounding young man constantly invoking The Lord. However, he is also brave and dedicated, taking a mission-boat back to a Japanese-held island to rescue children there after the first bombing of Darwin. He is shown in black clerical garb and dog collar, though I have a feeling that missionaries in the Northern Territory tended to wear shorts and open-necked shirts.
The plot is not, as some unkind critic stated, about Nicole Kidman discovering a Botox mine in the outback, but the first half is concerned largely with an equally improbable cattle-drive which seems to go to Darwin via the Olgas in Central Australia, the Bungle-Bungles in Western Australia, the Never-Never and various gorges in the North-West, rather like, on a larger scale, the Barry Humphries film in which the innocent Australian arriving at London’s Heathrow airport is driven by taxi to the city via Stonehenge. A small half-caste boy stops 1,500 cattle from stampeding over a cliff by the use of magical Aboriginal powers. With Nicole Kidman’s arrival the parched wasteland of Faraway Downs station blossoms equally magically into lush grass and flowers. Nicole Kidman herself, I thought, gave a better performance than some other critics have claimed.
The Japanese landing on an island off Darwin in World War II didn’t happen, but is plausible. There were probably some small covert landings along the coast for reconnaissance, and indeed one crashed Japanese flyer was said to have been captured on an offshore island by a film-loving Aborigine with the memorable words: “Stick ’em up all same Hopalong Cassidy!”
Despite the geographical mix-ups (well, John Ford left us with the impression that most of the American West was like Monument Valley), the scenery is spectacular and some of the camera-work very impressive. None of the acting is actually too bad.
It would be a mistake to treat Australia terribly seriously. It is really a very large Western, or perhaps South-Western — three hours of pretty harmless entertainment and easy to watch. Conservatives, indeed, might applaud the revival of this somewhat archaic form, with its simple heroisms, villainies and magics as stylized as a Japanese Noh drama.