This year, the prime minister of Australia issued a formal apology to the indigenous people of his country, known as Aborigines. A great number of their children called the Stolen Generation were systematically kidnapped for about 100 years as part of a government policy that some have regarded as highly racist.
This large epic film focuses on one little Aborigine boy caught in that Stolen Generation who also becomes involved in a cattle ranch dispute during World War II.
Directed by Baz Luhrman (Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet), this grandiose tale is the third in a series of throwbacks released this year. A throwback is merely a film made in today's time that appears or feels like films made in a previous time. It's differentiated from a run-of-the-mill period piece, which is an authentic, dramatic film about events that happened in the past.
A period piece is more historical, while a throwback is more histrionic. A period piece is more serious, while a throwback is sillier. The other two throwbacks were Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, starring Frances McDormand, and Leatherheads, starring George Clooney.
Basically, the film is old school. Those other two films made you feel like you were watching one of those screwball comedies from the 1930s or 40s. This one makes you feel like you're watching one of those epics from the 1950s or 60s.
Only the most observant of film students could break down on a technical level all the various camera angles and moves, as well as the overall narrative structure, which mimics the Old Hollywood styles. The most obvious Old Hollywood features are the acting and the writing.
What begins as a sitcom setup evolves into an adventure not unlike a Western and finally setting into a sweeping romance, all wrapped in the cloth of a culture clashing family drama.
A dignified, uptight, stubborn English lady comes to Australia to inquire about her husband's cattle business and instead she discovers an undignified, rough, scruffy Aussie who wants nothing to do with her. It becomes necessary for the two to work together to stop an ambitious, if not literally backstabbing, former employee.
Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman (The Hours and Cold Mountain) plays the dignified lady named Sara Ashley. At the outset, you'd think Kidman is perhaps doing a parody of Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind (1939), Katherine Hepburn from The African Queen (1951), or perhaps Elizabeth Taylor from Giant (1956). There are certainly similar elements.
Just within the confines of this story, Kidman can't help but draw those comparisons. Luhrman is so creatively playful that you soon learn he's not parodying, even though Luhrman enjoys watching Kidman flex her comedic muscle. As in their previous effort, Kidman screeches and squeals in humorous sequences that eases us into the heavy stuff, which burden the back half of this film.
Hugh Jackman (X-Men and Swordfish) plays Drover, the scruffy Aussie who at first could best be described as a tougher Crocodile Dundee. Drover prefers bar fights and horse breeding. The rustic, familial life is not one for him. But, looking at Jackman's posture, his posing, he too invokes the spirit of men who 40 or 50 years ago would have embodied this role. Jackman moves and stands with the same power as Burt Lancaster or Rock Hudson.
The nostalgia loses its novelty and ceases to be a distraction, as Luhrman is able to ease and involve the audience into a moving love story. The difference here is that his focus isn't one between a man and woman. It's between a child and his mother.
The last three films that Kidman did had her playing a mother in various states of distress, regarding her on-screen child. This latest has her eyes wide open with sadness. The only difference here is that her child is not her biological one, which wouldn't be too difficult for Kidman to imagine being that she has non-biological children. Her desperately emotional exasperations this time may earn her another Oscar nomination.
Luhrman and his director of photography Mandy Walker may earn Oscar nominations, as they use a cattle drive through the Australian Outback to open up and show some great landscapes. It's almost reminiscent of Lonesome Dove. As opposed to Luhrman's other works, this film feels more open, grander, and more expansive.
His cattle drive is literally taken to a cliffhanger ending that infuses his film with the same kind of energy and spirit as an Indiana Jones movie. Kidman and Jackman are even equipped with whips. Of course, Luhrman takes advantage of the steamy and wet passion between his two leads, reinforcing the beauty he's capturing.
However, through it all, Luhrman never loses sight of the true beauty, and that's his 12-year-old star Brandon Walters who plays Sara Ashley's adopted son, Nullah, the Aborigine boy who represents the tragedy of Australia's Stolen Generation, as well as the plight of the half-castes, those like Nullah who were of mixed heritage. It's through him we get a powerful story of love, loss, courage and triumph.
This film brings to light a little known historical aspect of Australia and a little known culture. While the film may be a little too long, I feel it's worth it.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for some violence and language
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 45 mins.