Australia! (The Film, Not The Country)


I’m excited. Are you excited? I have to say, I’m excited. It’s a special kind of excitement, a once-in-a-generation excitement, the sort of spine-tingling, patriotic excitement we would normally associate with momentous events like the 1983 America’s Cup, the Sydney Olympics, or Lisa McCune’s pregnancy.

It’s excitement about Australia. Not "Australia", the little-known beige country of slight disrepute, but Australia, the sensational home-grown blockbuster that has arrived to save the Australian film industry, the Australian tourism industry, and the general Australian sense of self-esteem from the various malaises that have been afflicting us on and off since 1906, when our film industry began with The Story of the Kelly Gang, a gritty suburban drama about a heroin addict’s struggle to reconcile with her dying father, starring Noni Hazlehurst.

Well, the depression ends now, because Australia is, frankly, a masterpiece. I haven’t seen it — as a professional journalist I feel a responsibility to retain my objectivity by not getting too close to my subject — but I’ve read a lot about it and seen some ads, and I can’t escape the conclusion that it is, almost certainly, the most spectacular and moving cinematic experience to hit our screens since the glory days of the Police Academy series.

How could it miss? It has everything you could want — stunning landscapes, adventure, romance, explosions, cattle. And the cast! Hugh Jackman, the World’s Sexiest Man, a man so innately attractive that menopausal women have been known to fall pregnant just by listening to the cast recording of The Boy From Oz. And Nicole Kidman, Australia’s Sweetheart, the woman who even at high school was voted Most Likely To One Day Convincingly Play A Snotty Uptight English Prig three years running.

What’s more, the film has Bryan Brown AND Bill Hunter AND Jack Thompson AND Bruce Spence, which makes it officially the Most Australian Movie Ever Made. It has an Australian Quotient of 180 per cent on the Australometer. It’s as Australian as meat pies and lamingtons and domestic violence. (In fact, if you Google "Australia", the movie comes up as the fifth result, behind such irrelevancies as the Australian parliament. According to Google, the only thing more Australian than Australia the movie is Australia the country, and that has a far inferior soundtrack.)

But it’s also universal; a story of love and hope and redemption in a new land. It will strike the same emotional chords around the world that were struck by Titanic. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we’re watching a hectic cattle round-up in the dusty outback, or an effeminate man-child turn blue and get eaten by fish; what matters is the human factor. And Australia, I’m assuming, has it in spades.

The movie’s real trump card, of course, is director Baz Luhrmann, a man of vision and inspiration who is not only a consummate storyteller with a unique visual sense and exquisite aesthetic touch; but is also a master of mass hypnosis, as demonstrated by his ability to convince millions of people that Strictly Ballroom was worth watching. So his latest effort seems certain to succeed.

And once it’s succeeded, the sky’s the limit. Our country will become the talk of the world. The international hordes will flock here like a great seething morass of sweaty, shorts-wearing minke whales. Once they have seen Australia, they will realise what attractions our fair land possesses. "Yes," they will say to themselves in their braying, unpleasant foreign accents, "I want to experience this Australia. I want to ride through the wide brown outback. I want to muster some cows, I want to abduct some Aboriginal children, I want to bomb Darwin."

And when they come, we will be ready for them. With wide smiles and Ken Done t-shirts and stuffed wombats, gouging great wads of cash out of them even as we struggle to disguise our loathing for these un-Australian scum. How sweet it will be. And all thanks to Baz Luhrmann, the plucky lad from Herons Creek who started out with nothing but a love of film and an inexplicable nickname.

And so we see that in almost every way, Australia is the answer to all our problems. After Australia, we’ll be happier, and richer, and more deeply aware of our feelings and our needs. In all likelihood, it will help cool the earth. Even Miranda Devine is excited, so nobody can accuse Luhrmann of missing his mark with the lowest common denominator.

And yet, and yet … Something nags at me.

It all seems so right, but something is … wrong. Somehow, as Australian as Australia undoubtedly is, it doesn’t quite seem … Aussie. Lengthy location shoots? Multimillion-dollar budgets? High production values? People buying tickets?

It’s not quite the Australian film industry we all know, is it?

We have a way of doing things in this country, film-wise. An endearing, lo-fi, DIY, excruciating way. Look at PJ Hogan, director of the beloved Muriel’s Wedding. He didn’t need big budgets or spectacular effects or small roles for the Chinese guy from Seinfeld. No, Hogan managed, with nothing more than some witty dialogue, colourful costumes and catchy ABBA songs, to craft a movie that filled all who saw it with an irresistible urge to dance out into the streets and slit their wrists at the horrible futility of life. It was a triumph of the wonderful homemade Australian approach.

And look what happened when PJ Hogan went to Hollywood. He got to make blockbusters, all his creativity went out the window, and he became single-handedly responsible for the resurrection of Julia Roberts’s career.

And there are myriad other examples, where Australians have used native ingenuity to overcome their lack of studio muscle to craft something truly unique. Look at Kenny — what other country would dare make a movie all about a man with a lisp? Look at Wolf Creek — who else would have been so daring as to make a movie about a serial killer? Look at Somersault — eventually, someone’s got to.

The point is, Australian film is different. Let’s take the aforementioned Bruce Spence. In most countries Bruce Spence would never have become a movie star. In most countries Bruce Spence would have been lynched by terrified villagers. But in Australia, he can thrive. In Australia we’re willing to fill our movies with freaks and misfits and Play School presenters, for the very simple reason that we’re not going to watch them anyway. And this gives us a wonderful freedom.

Will Australia change things? Will it make everything slicker and prettier? Will we be flooded with special effects and skilful scripting? Will we suddenly find ourselves forced to actually see Australian movies? Will we be burdened with the terrible weight of caring about locally made films? Can we handle that kind of responsibility? Wouldn’t it be easier to make a sequel to You and Your Stupid Mate? Wouldn’t it be easier to keep providing employment to Madeleine West?

Australia is, without doubt, going to improve all our lives. But I can’t help feeling that improvement isn’t really what Australia’s about. By saving our country, Baz Luhrmann may just destroy our souls.

Just like Alvin Purple.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.