There is no doubt at all that many Australian critics are giving it an extra star or so just for being a large scale film by Baz Luhrmann; a director who, although married, has always seemed to display a "gay sensibility" in his movies. (He works in "operatic style" is how they put it on At the Movies last night, where both critics spent a lot of time on the faults but still ended up giving it 3 1/2 stars each.)*
Anyhow, apart from every review, whether good or bad, agreeing that the film is riddled with cliche, there is no doubt that the way the film deals with aborigines is going to attract a lot of derision from some quarters. This will be well deserved if these comments by Roger Ebert (who liked the film overall, but his judgment is wildly erractic) are anything to go by:
Luhrmann is rightly contemptuous of Australia's "re-education" policies; he shows Nullah taking pride in his heritage and paints the white enforcers as the demented racists they were. But "Australia" also accepts aboriginal mystical powers lock, stock and barrel, and that I think may be condescending.Amongst the bad reviews that are out there (it scores a 51% on Rottentomatoes), I like the start to the one by Dana Stevens in Slate:
Well, what do you believe? Can the aboriginal people materialize wherever they desire? Become invisible? Are they telepaths? Can they receive direct guidance from the dead? Yes, certainly, in a spiritual or symbolic sense. But in a literal sense? Many of the plot points in "Australia" depend on the dead King George's ability to survey events from mountaintops and appear to Nullah to point the way. The Australians, having for decades treated their native people as subhuman, now politely endow them with godlike qualities. I am not sure that is a compliment. What they suffered, how they survived, how they prevailed and what they have accomplished, they have done as human beings, just as we all must.
The film is filled with problems caused by its acceptance of mystical powers. If Nullah is all-seeing and prescient at times, then why does he turn into a scared little boy who needs rescuing?
It's a mystery to me how Baz Luhrmann continues to be regarded as a director worth following. A long time has passed since I've regarded his lush, loud, defiantly unsubtle output with anything but dread.As for the aboriginal content, she writes:
I guess I don't know enough about Australian racial politics to opine at length on this movie's vision of its aboriginal characters, but I will say that if my people were subjected to this simultaneously idealizing and condescending "magical Negro" treatment, I would seriously consider aiming a boomerang at Baz Luhrmann's head.I certainly hope Anthony Lane writes the New Yorker review: I can imagine him being very witty about this.
* well it took a couple of attempts with different search terms, but it would appear that Luhrmann has not only admitted to a gay sensibility, but to active bisexuality.
UPDATE: Andrew Bolt points out Luhrmann's blatant dishonestly in one key plot point in the film. I wonder if this was co-writer Richard Flanagan's idea? Here he is, going on in great seriousness about the film.