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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Wizards, Magic & Nature
by V. Ulea

Call Baz Luhrmann’s Australia  “epic romance” or call it “a character story” --  but if you have not yet grasped Luhrmanr’s concept, which he methodically develops throughout his major films, you’ll be confused, skeptical, and even angry while watching it. Some of Luhrmann’s critics also feel that way because they have difficulty putting together the romance, the aboriginal magic, the allusions to The Wizard of Oz, and many other overwhelming and seemingly disjointed details in his latest offering. Most definitely, Luhrmann’s films are not story-based or character-based. They are concept-based. Concept is what cements and puts together all the details he thoroughly incorporates in his truly epic cinematography.

The Epic Struggle

Regardless of a highly entertaining nature of Luhrmann’s films, their goal is not to entertain, but to make one think. Luhrmann belongs to a small elite of directors-conceptualists, such as Federico Fellini, whose works can’t be approached from a traditional standpoint. At the meta-level, his films depict a genuinely epic struggle between two grand “entities” – civilization and nature. Australia is yet another attempt to reveal that struggle.

Personal lives of the characters are intertwined with a history that is nothing but a chain of violent interventions of civilization in the aboriginal (natural) world. This turns civilization into barbarians violently invading the Kingdom of Nature, ruining it in the way only barbarians can do. Thus, Luhrmann creates a paradox by introducing the “barbarian” civilization versus the “civilized” aboriginals who heal and restore the wounded world. The space of action in Australia is divided into the kingdom of nature guided by “King George” (David Gulpilil) and civilization, aggressively pursuing its goals. The “mediators” between the two worlds are half-Aboriginal children, one of whom is the main character and the storyteller, Nullah (Brandon Walters).


Nullah helps the childless Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) regain the cattle she was about to lose because of a treacherous cattle station manager, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). Later on, Nullah rescues the cattle, stopping the herd from stampeding over a cliff by using his magic power. After his mother tragically drowns in the water tower where both of them were hiding from the authority he becomes a son-figure for Lady Sarah.

Darwin and the Kingdom of Nature

All relationships in the film have their symbolism, rich in imagery and semantics. Like her biblical namesake who gave birth to Isaac when she was ninety, Lady Sarah is barren.  Her romance with Drover (Hugh Jackman), the man who assists her in transporting the cattle to Darwin, becomes “illuminated” by the presence of Nullah. Nullah represents the Kingdom of Nature, whose magic forces may help Luhrman’s Sarah restore her lost ability to “be fruitful and multiply.”

In the beginning, Lady Sarah resists the world of nature. In fact, she comes to northern Australia to force her husband into selling his faltering Australian cattle station. Nothing looks more artificial and farcical in the rural Australian environment than this fashionably dressed woman with mincing manners.

However, as she adapts to the natural world her behavior changes from affected to genuine and she opens herself to a true love. Her affection for Drover becomes a natural desire devoid of empty coquetry and nonsense. Metaphorically speaking, Drover is her spiritual guide “conducting” her “polluted” nature to “resurrection.” His profession is symbolic since it’s linked to transitioning, and so is their way to Darwin, the city named after Charles Darwin, known primarily for his theory of evolution. At this point, the travel becomes a transitional stage for Lady Sarah. She enters Darwin completely transformed and reunited with the primordial that is synonymous with aboriginal. In the end, all her close-ups reveal her natural beauty, not spoiled by a cosmetic makeover.

A Dangerous Shift

Drover himself is a man of “two worlds” since his late wife was an Aboriginal woman. His dual nature makes him oscillate between the civilized and the aboriginal, and in the second half of the movie he appears like a real dandy before Lady Sarah (the scene at the party). However, their Hollywood-like romance depicted with Luhrmann’s subtle sense of humor falls apart as soon as Drover rejects Nullah, saying, “He’s not my son.” This dangerous shift threatens to destroy the relationship between Drover and Lady Sarah -- a harmonious union between nature and civilization. Rejecting Nullah is a metaphor for rejecting the sacred world of nature -- the only source of true love, beauty and fertility. Only after finding Nullah does Drover regain his beloved, whom he mistakenly considered killed in the bombing of Darwin.

Drover rescues Nulah and other abducted children from the Mission Island, then sails back into port at Darwin where Lady Sarah is prepared to leave, believing there’s nothing for her in the city anymore. Accidentally, she hears a melody and recognizes Nullah’s harmonica, the one he “inherited” from Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson). Kipling’s name is instantly associated with Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book who was also known for glorifying soldiers “taming the natives.” Nullah plays "Over the Rainbow," a song Lady Sarah taught him earlier. This very tune brings them together again.

Over the Rainbows

Allusions to The Wizard of Oz are key to the main concept of Australia. First of all, the image of the rainbow in “Over the Rainbow” represents a bridge connecting the two worlds in the aboriginal myth of the Rainbow Serpent. It’s a metaphor for waterholes and water as life’s main resource. When Drover drives the cattle to Darwin with the team of six people, including Lady Sarah and Nullah, all the water sources have been poiseoned -- a metaphor for civilization “poisoning” the Kingdom of Nature. The group, however, survives with the help of "King George," Nullah’s wizard grandfather. The name “George” alludes to the myth of St. George, who overcame a dragon nested at the spring and, thus, threatened to leave the city without water. Like St. George, “King George” “rescues” the team from the “dragons” and makes sure everyone arrives safely at Darwin (a victory of evolution over revolution).

In Luhrman’s films, water is an important metaphor for nature. It gives life and conveys the spirits of the dead to their afterlife journey. It cleanses and blesses his characters who passionately kiss in the swimming pool (Romeo and Juliet) and in the rain (Australia). It also brings Nullah and Drover to Lady Sarah. Nullah’s mother dies in the water tower (a tower appears to be a symbol of a tunnel between the worlds of the living and the dead). Right after that, Lady Sarah sings the song “Over the Rainbow” to cheer Nullah. In Nullah’s world the song becomes a hymn to the Rainbow Serpent, another metaphor for living (holy) water that preserves his mother’s spirit in the afterlife.

Magic Shoes

Another allusion to the The Wizard of Oz is linked to the tale of Dorothy’s magic shoes. To return home, Dorothy should click her heels together three times and say, “There’s no place like home.” The clip from The Wizard of Oz is replayed in the film, so when its variation appears in the final scene of Australia the viewer remembers the “theme.”  Indeed, the “returning scene” in Australia is a deviation from the original tale of Dorothy’s return. The difference is that Dorothy must wear her shoes in order to come home, but Nullah has to take them off. Shoes are a symbol of civilization. They can’t possibly bring him home because his home is the Kingdom of Nature. There, he is a real wizard unlike the wizard of Oz, who was nothing but a fraud trapped in the magic country.  

Nullah leaves the civilized world, but not before he is reunited with his “adopted parents.” Their love for him and each other is supposed to shape the rainbow bridge, without which civilization will collapse.

Australia ends with hope. Hope that Sarah would be blessed with children, hope that a new generation would keep building the bridge, not destroying it, hope that man and nature would speak the same language again.

(Photo: V. Ulea)

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