To truly appreciate the disappointment of Baz Luhrmann‘s “Australia” is to also appreciate how terrific his previous three films are. In 1992, I was truly taken with his debut feature, “Strictly Ballroom.” And then astounded four years later by his subsequent stylized rendition of “Romeo & Juliet,” driven by an incredible soundtrack that I played over and over and over. His “Red Curtain Trilogy” concluded with the even more crafted “Moulin Rouge.” While he lost some folks with that one… I still vividly recall the film’s first screening, in the Lumiere Theater on the opening day of the Cannes Film Festival five years later. It was a Cannes moment I won’t soon forget, enthralled with Ewan McGregor, wowed by the inventive use of pop music and even appreciating Nicole Kidman. Even as some in the audience catcalled when the film came to a close that day, I defended it for months, watching it on screen again later that year on a cold December night in Berlin of all places. It got better. (A year later I even caught his “La Boheme” on Broadway…)
All of this is to reiterate how much I’ve appreciated the work of Baz Luhrmann. So, with concern and trepidation I sat down to watch his latest feature, “Australia.” Concerned with rumors of a battle over the ending and aware that Baz was cutting it down to the wire to get the film finished in time, last week I finally sat down to watch it and felt a sense of relief…for the first hour or so.
And then it went wrong. I told a friend last week that the film felt incomplete. Is this version, which shuns the inventiveness and ingenuity of its first third, really Luhrmann’s final cut? Taken as a whole it just doesn’t feel like a finished film. It slowly wanders astray in a land of convention. Luhrmann’s apparent attempts at an homage to the films of 1939 loses steam and sadly, as hard as it is for me to say, becomes tedious.
In a recent BBC article, Baz Luhrmann admitted that he was up against the wall to finish the movie, but then he defended himself saying that he would never cave in to studio pressures. “You really think that on my films people tell me what to do?” Luhrmann said, “I don’t think so – on my films I decide.”
“Crikey,” a name film critic grumbled to me as we left the Times Square screening last week. Indeed.
“Australia” is a sad misstep in Luhrmann’s career. But I’ll be there, ready to take in whatever he comes up with next.