Film Review: Australia

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Romantic epics, and especially romantic epics set amid tragedy and destruction, have long been some of the most popular – yet hard to pull off – of all film genres. The proof is in the money this type of film can make. 1997’s Titanic, decidedly a romantic epic set on the most famous sinking ship of them all, is the highest-grossing film of all time.

Adjust movie takings for inflation, and the highest-grossing of all time is 1939’s Gone With The Wind, the epitome and archetype of the genre, with tragic love blossoming amidst the destruction of the American Civil War. Along the way we’ve had the likes of 1963’s Cleopatra (37th highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation) and 1965’s Doctor Zhivago (8th highest), not to mention recent additions to the genre The English Patient and last year’s smaller-scale Atonement.

For this kind of epic to work, bar a lead couple that we can root for the general rule is that they need vast, sweeping vistas for the camera to wow audiences with, combined with a momentous tragedy. Gone With The Wind spliced one of the earliest uses of full technicolour with the devastation of the Civil War, Titanic had the massive ship and endless ocean combined with the tragic loss of hundreds of lives, Cleopatra the glory of ancient Egypt and Roman invasion, Doctor Zhivago the vast steppes of Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution on 1917.

For the central romance, you can’t do better than pick two of Australia’s most successful and admired stars – Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman – in their first live action outing together (they previously co-starred in 2006’s penguin musical comedy Happy Feet). With fellow Australian Baz Luhrmann (who also co-wrote the screenplay) in the director’s chair, we can all be certain that this central duo will have a definite chemistry, his previous romantic efforts – most notably Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge – having more than proved his talent for making love blossom on screen.
And for the setting of the film itself? Well, in terms of sheer spectacle, the immensity of the northern Australian outback is hard to beat. Desert stretching as far as the eye can see, peppered with rocky outcrops, mankind dwarfed amid the enormity of nature – these have been cinematic staples ever since, more than six decades ago, John Ford first headed out to Monument Valley with John Wayne to shoot the first of countless desert-set Westerns.

And for the tragedy that always has to come in such movies? Well, the period in which the film is set should provide some clues – the late 1930s and early 1940s. Yes, like The English Patient and Atonement before it, Australia’s tragedy is the Second World War, and in particular the February 1942 Japanese attack on the northern Australian city of Darwin. This devastating episode, little recalled outside of Australia itself, was an entirely unexpected blow akin to that of the far more famous lighting raid on Pearl Harbor three months earlier – and we all know how many films have been made about that incident.

The ingredients, in other words, are all present: top-notch stars, a director with a near-perfect track record, and an historical setting up there with the best romantic epics of years past. Will it earn a place among the best of them? Only time will tell – but it certainly deserves a shot.