surprising review of Australia

I was surprised to read in David Denby’s review of Australia in The New Yorker a rather stinging comment on the Baz Luhrmann’s colonialist (and racist) portrayal of the Aboriginal people:

In the midst of the spectacle, however, Luhrmann and his screenwriters, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, and Richard Flanagan, have attempted to denounce racism (Nullah is despised by the whites) and then to trace the beginnings of white respect for Aboriginal culture. Nullah’s grandfather, a shaman known as King George (David Gulpilil), is a major figure in the movie—well, in a way. Whenever the story gets stuck, he suddenly appears, in a loincloth, perched atop a peak, or perhaps a water tower—in any case, he’s up high. He then performs whatever magic is necessary to move the film along. At the end, King George summons Nullah to a rite of passage, a walkabout. Nullah’s disappearance into the desert, leaving the whites behind, is framed as a triumphant anti-colonial moment, but Luhrmann confuses the issue by accompanying the scene with, of all things, the stirring “Nimrod” passage from “Enigma Variations,” by Edward Elgar, the composer perhaps most closely associated with the glories of empire. With the same degree of appropriateness, Luhrmann might celebrate Barack Obama’s Inauguration with a thundering rendition of “Dixie.”

I can’t say I’m surprised at the ham-handedness of Luhrmann’s film — I hated Moulin Rouge and I’m sure Australia would be even worse, given how problematic the subject matter is. The film’s attempt at social critique fails because the writers never question their own intent. That’s the problem with lazy “anti-racism” — it acknowledges racism is bad but never digs in deeper to see how pervasive the problem really is.

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