Coincidence or not: on the evening before Australia Day, SKY, Murdoch’s satellite channel, screened the film Australia?
I decided to watch it – half expecting not to like it on the grounds that I hadn’t been able to sit through Moulin Rouge, another Luhrmann-Kidman collaboration.
I was pleasantly surprised: Australia is quite a watchable film.
It is crammed with familiar Australian story-telling devices (Aboriginal Dreamtime legends, pub scenes, long journeys) and there are national emblems aplenty; but none of these things made me feel uncomfortable.
The characters are recognisable but rather one-dimensional. The men are hard-drinking, chauvinistic and stubbornly arrogant.
Hugh Jackson is a treat – not so much for his beefed up upper body or his perfect teeth but for the naturalness of his accent: he lays it on just right (or is that how he normally speaks?) I very much enjoyed hearing his flat, dry, sarcastic tones in my cold, grey living room.
Kidman is also great.
The setting of the film is the Northern Territory which I visited for the first time last year. (It was wonderful.) The period is 1939-1942. The Top End that we see in the film looks very much like a digitalized map-image of the place but it works all the same: the essence of Darwin and its surroundings are effectively summoned up.
On the downside, the film is too long and too sentimental for my tastes. The heavy-handed signposting of the plot is another negative. Of particular annoyance is the voiceover narration. Not only because I don’t need someone telling me what’s happening at every juncture but also because the narrator in question uses a variety of English that doesn’t sound right.
This narrator is a “half-blood” child. His mother is Aboriginal, his father is white and he has a wise old Aboriginal grandfather. He delivers his dialogue in what is supposed to be Aboriginal English, which he has every right to do.
The variations from standard English that he uses are relatively consistent: a mismatching of subjects and verbs and a superfluous use of pronouns (amongst other things); for example: “Mrs Boss, she get real angry.” It works linguistically but how closely does it correspond to a genuine variety of Aboriginal English? I can’t answer that question. (The language varieties website makes some good points about Aboriginal English.)
Fortunately, the child-actor who plays the role of the narrator is very endearing and this creates a distraction from the questionable authenticity of the language he is required to use.
For various reasons I didn’t get around to seeing Australia at the cinema last year. However, I remember that an ex-student called Giulia, an avid film-goer, asked me if I felt proud of my country when I saw the publicity for the film. Proud? The publicity roused my interest but it didn’t make me feel proud. Actually, I can’t think of any film or book that has made me feel “proud”.
I’ve never been droving or learned to ride a horse. Nor have I ever been in a bombing raid (thankfully). I could identify with the film, all the same, and I felt that I understood where it was coming from. I also felt that it captured something of the land down under.
Signor Lu, on the other hand, enjoyed the film on another level. Unlike me, he laughed and cried in all the right places and responded appropriately to the crocodiles. (Were there crocodiles or did I imagine that part?). We agreed that it was good, undemanding entertainment as well as an effective bedtime story – we both slept soundly that night.