Are all epic movies camp? Or is it just that we’re daunted by scale these days? I don’t imagine Cecil B. DeMille worried if his movies were camp. And I can’t see camp accusations giving Joe Mankiewicz any sleepless nights. But these days – when we’re practically born knowing what the “snails and oysters” scene in Spartacus is about – any movie reaching for something big seems camp to us. Australian director Baz Luhrmannn has based his entire career on camp; whether it be ballroom dancing or Shakespeare – he always winks. In Australia, he’s created a camp national epic. But knowingness is dangerous if you want to raise more than a smirk.
The movie is divided into two halves, plus on-screen intermission. You know it’s the intermission because Hugh Jackman shaves his beard off. If the beard is on: so’s the action. This is not a contemplative movie. This is the tale of Nicole Kidman, playing an archetypal English aristocrat. She travels from England to Australia to visit a cattle ranch – her cattle ranch – where her husband lies dead. Nicole’s husband has been killed with a glass-tipped spear. But screw him. He’s only a plot point. What matters is that Hugh Jackman is here, and it’s the eve of World War II, and there are cattle to be driven. The British Army needs meat, and with this much ham-acting they’re liable to choke themselves. There’s also a photogenic Aboriginal boy who needs a mother. And a goddamn nation to be unified! And Nicole has to do it all – thanks to Botox – with just two facial expressions!
How broad is this movie played? I’ll give you two hints: 1) there’s a Chinese character called Mr. Sing-Song. 2) There’s a Russian character called Ivan. Baz Luhrmann is not aiming for social realism here. Australia is no more about the reality of the past than Pearl Harbour was. Like Pearl Harbour, Australia wants to re-write history to show racism being over-come thirty years early, with war promoting egalitarianism among the Allies. And we, the audience, know this is nothing to do with what happened, but hell, it’s a nice sentiment – and nothing like as hard to believe as Nicole’s lips.
I like Nicole Kidman, but I wish she would stop tinkering with her face. The sad truth is: you can’t act without your forehead. And she really could act once upon a time. Look at To Die For. Look at The Others. Look at Birth. Ok, that’s three out of a hundred (and that’s only a mild exaggeration), but she has talent. Australia doesn’t require much more of her than Far and Away did seventeen years ago (mock consternation on a bullet-train to sex), but she’s game and her eyes are still acting. Hugh Jackman, as ever, offers dependable support. And since this is a “women’s picture” at heart, it’s Jackman who takes his shirt off. Aside from The Fountain, Jackman has made nothing but crap, so Nicole isn’t threatened by him. They’ve no chemistry, but they act well together. It’s as if you can sense these two Australians’ relief at not having an American co-star. They’re from the land of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding, so they don’t mind the camp.
Does the movie work? Well, sorta. It carries you away and lives only to please you, and it stars two stars who like a good close-up. The Aboriginal boy is cute and he brings out the human being in Kidman.
Though nothing seems real, nothing in a Baz Luhrmann movie is supposed to be real (it’s why “camp” is his natural milieu). Australia is better than Pearl Harbour because it’s made by someone who’s sincere even when he’s faking. I could have lived without the Elton John song over the closing credits (camp is camp, but “The Drover’s Ballad” is ridiculous). Still, this is an epic that recalls the heady days of the 1950s, when epics were epic, camp be damned.