With "The Great Gatsby" cresting a wave of buzz as it hits theaters today, fans and pundits are happily comparing and contrasting Baz Luhrmann's take on the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel to his previous cult classic films. Where does "The Great Gatsby" rank compared to "Strictly Ballroom?" What about "Moulin Rouge?" How does it hold up when compared to "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet?"
Yet there's one film conspicuously absent from most discussions of Luhrmann's greatest works: His 2008 magnum opus "Australia."
And that's a shame, because "Australia" deserves a second look.
Arriving in theaters in 2008, "Australia" starred Nicole Kidman as an Englishwoman who travels to the Australian outback to take over her dead husband's struggling cattle ranch. Once there, she runs into corrupt locals, takes a child of aboriginal descent into her care and becomes romantically involved with a hunk of manhood known only as The Drover (Hugh Jackman). Then, following an epic cattle drive, they get caught up in a Japanese assault on the port city of Darwin that signals the beginning of Australia's involvement in World War II.
In other words, it's huge and ambitious. And for many critics, it was also kind of a mess. Covering three years of Australian history and running nearly three full hours in length, Luhrmann tried to pack every bit of Australian iconography that he could into this ode to his homeland, with the result that many viewers found it overstuffed and meandering, not to mention bordering on cultural cliche in many ways.
All of which is fair. And yet, now is the prefect time to reevaluate "Australia," as the film is both a perfect example of Luhrmann's artistic vision as well as a direct precursor in some ways to "The Great Gatsby."
Of course, any film with great ambition is worth a second look these days, because ambition seems to be in increasingly short supply. Yes, you can find it in some unexpected places — the world building exercise of Marvel's interconnected superhero universe is unprecedented — but with studios more and more looking to bet only on the sure thing, a movie with more on its mind than ticking off focus group survey boxes is a rare thing indeed.
But "Australia" in particular is of interest for the way it ties in with Luhrmann's history not just of risk taking but of exploring both cinematic storytelling and storytelling techniques in general. Like "The Great Gatsby," it's not just a movie, it's a meta commentary on the movies and on how we as audience members process and understand stories.
Sound a bit much? Well, consider some of Luhrmann's other works, such as "Strictly Ballroom," which begins with a literal opening of the curtains to let you know a capital-S Story is about to begin before jerking you out of what you think is the story with a sudden switch to a faux-documentary interview. Or "The Great Gatsby," which this time around isn't just the great American novel, it's also a diary being written and narrated by an inmate in a sanitarium. We're not watching the story in Baz Luhrmann films, we're watching someone tell a story, which is a different thing altogether.
And in that light, "Australia" becomes much more — and more interesting — than a simple historical epic. Because Luhrmann isn't interested in just telling a story that is set in the 40's; he's interested in showing audiences how stories were told in the 40's. Take a look at the campfire scene during the big cattle drive if you don't believe us: In a movie boasting a $130 million budget and top notch CGI during action sequences, Luhrmann blatantly filmed this sequence on a sound stage with a painted backdrop. He's trying to recreate a style of storytelling more than a moment in time.
As a result, many of "Australia's" quirks can be seen to be both intentional and effective, mainly because the film isn't trying to accomplish what we thought it was trying to accomplish. Kidman's stilted character and line delivery isn't old fashioned so much as a recreation and deconstruction of the acting techniques of the past. Similarly, the broad plot strokes (evil cattle barons, barroom brawls, enemy soldiers attacking what's essentially an orphanage) are in keeping with classic, sudsy Hollywood storytelling styles. And so on.
Of course, it wouldn't be Luhrmann if the tropes of the past weren't juxtaposed with modern touches (see: "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet"), which explains the film's progressive look at race relations in the form of the Stolen Generations subplot.
But from the film's fascination with the "Wizard of Oz" song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" right down to its retro choice of fonts for the logo, "Australia" is about the movies as much as it is a movie itself.
And that alone should be more than enough reason for any real movie fan to give it a second look.