‘Australia,’ ‘Narnia’ find themselves after shaky starts

Posted Nov. 30, 2008, at 4:52 p.m.

In theaters

AUSTRALIA, directed by Baz Luhrmann, written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan, 165 minutes, rated PG-13.

Since there isn’t enough space in this column — let alone in the land of Oz — to fully explore the new Baz Luhrmann epic, “Australia,” let’s just cut to the chase, visit the circus he offers and hope for the best.

Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”) based his movie on a script he co-wrote with Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan, and what he mines from it is one massive film, the first third of which is pure camp (not in a good way), and the last two-thirds of which manage to settle into something reasonably engrossing.

Set in 1939 and extending through to 1942, when Australia was attacked by the Japanese as World War II rolled over that continent, the film stars Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, whose pale, parasol-shielded skin belies the mettle that rests beneath.

At first, Sarah comes off as a rigid cartoon — her tight-fisted gait, popping eyes and unyielding pluck might leave some wondering whether there’s a tightly wound key stuck in her back, particularly since the performance Kidman delivers in the film’s first 90 minutes suggests that this lady is something of a wind-up doll let loose in the Outback.

When Sarah is forced to travel to the Northern Territory to take over her husband’s cattle ranch before an evil cattle baron (Bryan Brown) can claim it all, she does so with the reluctant help of a cattle driver named Drover, who is played by Hugh Jackman in a performance that underscores why we need fewer celebrities and more movie stars.

Jackman is the latter — he commands the screen with a physical presence that isn’t really mortal, which is part of what being a movie star is all about. Given Kidman’s own beauty, she assists to that end, with each helping “Australia” in at least being a good-looking film even if structurally it’s kind of a mess.

For drama, the movie goes beyond the death of Sarah’s husband, the corrupt cattle baron angle and the love growing between Drover and Sarah to offer something more significant. This also is the story of Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-Aboriginal boy ridiculed for his mixed-race status.

Sarah and Drover come to love him as their own, but when he’s torn away from them by the government, Luhrmann finds the real meat of his tale, stakes his claim to it, and the movie lifts in spite of its ongoing run of predictability. The emotions suddenly become real, with Kidman and Jackman rising to the challenge of their larger-than-life roles just as the bombs start to drop and their lives are put on the line.

To say the least, this is one of the year’s most aggressively mounted films — you admire it for its chutzpah. Its ambition isn’t just impressive, it’s staggering, with Mandy Walker’s excellent cinematography and David Hirschfelder’s heated score assisting the film in its quest to burst beyond the limitations of a mere movie screen.

Armed with a motherlode of cinematic references — from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind,” “The African Queen” and beyond (and beyond, and beyond) — its unflagging energy and its ridiculous scope, this is a movie that doesn’t want to just take over the cineplex. It wants to own it. For better and worse, it has a hell of a time doing so, though not without belching and hiccuping along the way.

Grade: C+

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN, directed by Andrew Adamson, written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Adamson, 132 minutes, rated PG.

Not unlike “Australia,” the second film in the “Narnia” franchise gets off to a shaky start, but after a while it finds itself, strikes a more consistent tone and comes through with a movie that gets increasingly better as it unfolds.

As the film begins, a year has passed in the lives of the four Pevensie siblings — Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) — all of whom are living pedestrian lives in London as World War II rages around them.

Back in Narnia, the mystical land in which the Pevensies became kings and queens, 1,300 years have passed and that land is in a state of disarray. Without warning, the Pevensies are called back for more adventures by Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), the dull yet rakish Telmarine prince.

Several scenes recall the greatness of the previous movie, a good deal of which is bolstered by the superb special effects, not to mention Tilda Swinton’s wicked cameo as the Valkyrie warrior Jadis.

Still, working against the movie (and the C.S. Lewis books on which they’re based) is the fact that death can be prevented with a drop of Lucy’s life-giving elixir. That’s a calming concept, to be sure, and while I understand that all of this is meant to be fantasy, one has to wonder: Where is the danger in battle if a cure-all is at hand?

While for some, it’s likely comforting to know that a bottle can hold the kiss of life for, say, an ailing dwarf or a feisty mouse you’ve come to love, you also have to wonder how much more stark, thought-provoking and true this movie and the books would have been had those characters not conveniently cheated death when death otherwise would have stolen them away.

Grade: B-

Weekinrewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at christopher@weekinrewind.com.

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles

More in Living