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'Australia' Makes a Worthy Apology

By Lisa Pease
December 22, 2008

Baz Luhrmann, the creative force behind "Moulin Rouge" and "Strictly Ballroom," has written and directed an epic valentine to 1940s-style films with his latest effort, "Australia."

Unabashedly clichéd and sentimental, to be sure, the film has nonetheless been sold short by a bevy of all-too-cynical film critics.

“Australia” held my interest every one of its 165 minutes in part because it traverses so many genres. The film is part ribald comedy, part love story, part western, and part historical epic. And it is the historical element at the core of the film that most tugged at my heart.

The film opens by describing what is known in Australia as the "Stolen Generation." For many years, the Australian government forcibly separated Aboriginal children, especially the "creamies" (those of mixed blood), from their families and placed them under the control of white people in the hopes of assimilating them into the culture and diminishing the aboriginal population.

I had never heard of this horrific practice until this film, and the real star of the film is neither Hugh Jackman (this year's "Sexiest Man Alive," according to People magazine) nor the lovely and talented Nicole Kidman, but a young first-time actor named Brandon Wallace, who plays the story's pivotal character "Nullah."

The story is predictable, to a point. An upper crust British woman, Lady Sarah Ashley, comes to one of the remote outposts of Australia, Darwin, in 1939, in a classic "fish out of water story." There, she finds herself dependent on her opposite, a wild Brumby of a man called "The Drover," who refuses to be pinned down by convention, society, or any woman.

At first, the two infuriate each other. But opposites attract, and soon they become a devoted, if unconventional, pair. They join forces in an effort to save Lady Ashley's farm, the last independently owned cattle farm in the region, the rest belonging to King Carney (played by Bryan Brown).

The only way to save the farm is to sell her cattle to the British, but that requires driving the cattle across a hazard-filled area of Australia. With sweeping views of both a real and digital Australia, the film is also part travelogue, taking you on the difficult journey with the characters.

But it is the story of the endearing and near-magical Nullah, who works his way into the hearts of Lady Ashley and the Drover before seeking to join his grandfather "King George" on a walkabout, that offers the most surprises.

Ultimately, through Nullah’s character, the film presents a sweeping apology to the Stolen Generation.

If you have a romantic bone in your body, you will like "Australia." If you enjoy good stories, you will like this film. If you like to travel through both foreign lands and historical circumstance, you'll be engaged. But if you fancy yourself a discerning connoisseur of art films, this one is probably not for you.

I don't expect the film will be nominated for any awards, save a possible nod to the luminous Brandon Wallace for best supporting actor. But I felt my three hours were very well spent. Treat yourself to a trip to "Australia" for the holidays. This is one film you shouldn’t wait to see on DVD.

[For more on past and present mistreatment of Australia’s Aborigines, see’s 1999 story, “Aborigines and Uranium.”]

Lisa Pease is a historian and a movie buff.

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