There was great pre-release anticipation for this film and it now seems that the Australian government had put money into it and fostered a tourism tie-in. It was all a great disappointment. To be fair, it was the second highest grossing movie in Australia after Crocodile Dundee, but the film did poorly with the critics worldwide and the receipts failed to live up to expectations. This film was a directorial failure, although Nicole Kidman must share the responsibility. Right from the start, Baz Luhrmann gives it a saturated and artificial look and the performances seem to come from an old Disney film.
The narrative is provided by a much-too-cute half-caste boy named Nullah. He has an Aboriginal grandfather, played by David Gulpilil, who clings to the old ways. The foreground action is carried by Kidman and Hugh Jackman. She is an English aristocrat who arrives in the Northwest Territory to join her husband on their cattle ranch only to find him murdered. Gulpilil is accused of the murder and he has taken refuge on a red rock promontory where he can watch over the whitefellas’ dramas below. Kidman makes herself unattractive in every way; mostly huffing in aristocratic horror at the inconveniences she must endure. Inevitably she and Jackman, the ranch foreman, must join forces to drive a herd of cattle up to Darwin and make the money to save the ranch. When the two become lovers it is a bit hard to take because Kidman has been so peevish up to this point.
There is an undercurrent of Australian racism and Nullah lives in fear of being taken off as part of the Lost Generation. The year is 1939 at the outset of the film and the conclusion comes sometime after Pearl Harbor with the bombing of Darwin (northern Australia) by the Japanese. This movie suffers much the same fate as the Disney Pearl Harbor. It betrays the hopes of those with an investment in the memory of a terrible and heroic time. Ebert says that Luhrmann was attempting to make the Australian Gone With the Wind. After all the principle characters survive the bombing and overcome the obstacles to their happiness, they are reunited and look forward to a renewed life.
In the beginning, there is a legend that reads, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.” At the end, there are two more print legends. The first says that the practice of removing half-caste children from Aboriginal parents ended in 1973. The other speaks of the government apology to the Aboriginal people in 2008. There is a scene at the end where Jackman brings his Aboriginal friend into a bar that serves only whites and demands that the man be served a drink (echo of Lawrence of Arabia). The film ends with Nullah deciding to go off on walkabout with his grandfather. It is a tribute for Aboriginal tradition despite the fact that this is a film about white people struggling to maintain their possession of this land.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the Special Features on the DVD have only a couple of deleted scenes and no Making Of documentary. Kidman had been in the news sometime around the opening of the film saying she was embarrassed by the low quality of her work on this project. She later tried to back peddle from this lapse of show business judgment. She would be right to be remorseful, however. Aborigines, of course, get the short end of the reel. It is always fascinating to contemplate the process out of which failure is made.