Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Australia's Passion

Passion’s role in narrative writing is a little murky. After all, an invested author does not necessarily a technically excellent work make, and vice versa. But we’ve all flipped to the final page or watched the final credit scroll off the screen and felt that the story’s creator had an uncommon bond with his material. That’s the feeling which pervades Australia, an epic as heated and broad as the land it seeks to portray.

Let me say it right upfront: By almost any measure, the movie is a mess. What starts as a simple tale of a posh aristocrat trying to turn around the fortunes of her late husband’s cattle business quickly bursts its banks. It goes everywhere. There are mystical aborigine sages and deadly stampedes, poisoned waterholes and trackless wastes, black-tie dinners and sexual tension so electric you could use it to light the eastern seaboard, not to mention bronco busting, wartime bombing, sniper shooting, towns exploding, and good-guy murdering by spear, crocodile and even cow. You get the idea. The narrative arc is more broken than a politician’s promises. Director Baz Luhrmann also seems completely unaware of the delicious irony in setting much of a film decrying racism in
the city of Darwin.

But despite all these flaws, Australia works. I think it owes its success to Luhrmann’s obvious adoration of his material. He splashes up shot after shot of the ruggedly beautiful outback, and even when scenes swing perilously close to self-parody (Hugh Jackman smolders so much that one fears he might combust), the story never ceases to take itself seriously. Such devotion might earn sneers from auteurs, but not from me. I lost my passion once. It took years to get it back. It’s a precious thing in our ironic age, and it covers over a multitude of storytelling sins.

(Picture: 2006 by

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