Is this the real life?  Is this just fantasy? – Freddie Mercury

Baz Luhrmann's Australia opens with a scene that sent shivers up my spine.  There's a campsite in the twilight, with a baobab tree on the left and a campfire and silhouettes of people on the right.  Sparks fly.  I recognised it immediately: it was as if it was part of my DNA.  It was part Maurice Tourneur, the silent film director who made exquisitely beautiful films, and was a master of the romantic silhouette. It was part 1940s/50s Australian ceramic decorative art which adopted (and adapted) Australian indigenous themes, and is seen now as kitsch, but which was very popular in its day, and very collectible these days. It was part Albert Namatjira. And it was straight out of a storybook*.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and a tear came to my eye.  In one scene Baz had lightly touched on something profound in my memories of growing up in Australia. And at the same time he put me at my rest: I could feel confident that the film would be both beautiful, and culturally resonant.

By the end of the film, my confidence had been justified.  This film touches on the things – sometimes foolish things, sometimes clichéd things, sometimes landscapes, sometimes historical events, sometimes caricatures, that add up to a fascinating picture of (mostly white) Australian identity. I'm not saying that it is an accurate picture: it's more like our perception of what we are – or perhaps more accurately, our perception of how others see us.  I'm being purposely indirect here. We Australians are, after all, a very self-conscious people, very concerned about how we are perceived. In short: this film pushes lots of emotional buttons for Aussies like me.  What it might do for indigenous Australians I can’t even begin to imagine, but I’d be fascinated to hear.

The film is being sold as a kind of gigantic travelogue/ advertisement, intended to lure travellers to visit Australia (the country, not the film).  But I believe it has much more to say to white Australians. It speaks volumes about the ambivalence we city-dwellers feel abut the outback, and the distance we now have from our pioneer origins. It speaks directly to the great pride we take in the Australian landscape. It also touches, reasonably sensitively I hope, on our great shame: the Stolen Generations (I'm writing of the film itself, and not some of the rather insensitive surrounding advertising and publicity).

Australia references many, many cultural artefacts, including, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, the films The Wizard of Oz (1939 – a surprisingly apt link), Gone With the Wind (1939), From Here to Eternity (1953), The Overlanders (1946), and Tracey Moffatt's Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989), as well as images from Tracey Moffatt's other artwork (Australian indigenous artist Tracey
Moffatt herself is a member of the Stolen Generations). Anyone familiar with Australian culture will be struck over and over again by familiar images. Baz Luhrmann always does his homework thoroughly.

There are two or three set-action-pieces that are truly astounding, and jaw-droppingly exciting.  But despite all of the millions of dollars put into this film, there are some really obvious bluescreen effects: people are dropped into a landscape by means of computer – and it shows.  I think this is symptomatic of Baz's editing problems.  It seems he was rushing to a deadline and didn't have enough time to make these scenes look absolutely real. 

But then again, was reality what he was looking for?  It can't be, in a film that uses The Wizard of Oz as a touchstone.  This is not a documentary: it is a storybook
. Luhrmann always works with theatre and artifice: look at Strictly Ballroom (1992), William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Moulin Rouge! (2001): pure artifice.

As to the performances, I thought the three main Aboriginal actors were the standouts: David Gulpilil is one of those actors that you just can't take your eyes off. Here, he leaves you wanting more. David Ngoombujarra, as Magarri, is also impressive: I wrote about his talent before in my review of Craig Lahiff's Black and White (2002), and of course young Brandon Walters as Nullah is not only meltingly beautiful, but also functions as the glue that holds the narrative together – and given the scope of the narrative, that's really saying something.  Ursula Yovich, as Daisy, is impressive in her short amount of screen time.

Hugh Jackman is a dashing, but down-to-earth hero. Bryan Brown is a breath of fresh air as King Carney, the landowner with evil intent. Jack Thompson is over-the-top as the alcoholic and evocatively-named Kipling Flynn – but Jack is such an old pro that he makes it work, and he evinced another set of tears from my eyes. Less successful is David Wenham, who tries his best to tone down the moustache-twirling
villainous nature of his character.

And lastly, Nicole Kidman.  However beautiful she looks (particularly in the last part of the film), I can't overlook the cartoonish nature of her Lady Sarah Ashley before she gets tamed by the Australian outback.  The scene where she sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (and forgets the words!) is just squirmingly embarrassing.

So this is a flawed film. It's also ambitious. It's a great adventure, with truth, lies, romance, history, spectacle, and corn in equal measure. It made me cry several times, and I was exhausted by the end. It must be seen. I'm going to see it again on the biggest screen I can, with the biggest sound system possible.  Don’t listen to those who say it is too long.  It really moves along. And don't wait for the DVD!  Australia's too big a country for that.

*Thanks to my friend Natalia Bradshaw for suggesting this word.