A Land Down Under

Last weekend I decided to give my DVD watching an antipodean slant, and after dismissing the possibility of spending two nights drooling over Kylie Minogue concert footage, I zeroed in on a couple of films that were set in ‘a land down under’.

Hammers Over the Anvil I picked up as part of a four films on one DVD deal at Poundland, and was really just excess baggage as the one I especially wanted was a Marquis De Sade bio-flick. It stars Russell Crowe and Charlotte Rampling as star-crossed lovers. He’s a horse tamer, a man that every women lusts after and every man envies, but who lives on his own outside of town and wants for nothing until she comes into his life. She’s the wife of a wealthy man, having a fling with a bit of rough and finding that it’s rather more to her liking than she’d anticipated. When she tries to break things off, he gets blind drunk and falls off his horse, at which point she decides to abandon her marriage and devote the rest of her life to caring for this invalid, so that worked out well I’m thinking. I didn’t care much for the subtext – noble, independent man is broken by a woman, and she atones for her sins by becoming his nursemaid.

There’s more to it though than the central love affair. Set in 1910, the story is told through the eyes of fourteen year old Alan Marshall, who idolises East Driscoll (Crowe) and abets his affair, even after he realises that it is wrong. For Alan these events form a rite of passage, and an essential part of this is realising that his father is right in dismissing Driscoll as somebody who has never had to grow up. Alan is a cripple, and his attempts to win the respect of others and attain a modicum of dignity add a poignant note to the proceedings, while the hypocrisy behind attitudes to gender (the vicar who has sex with a local girl, but then doesn’t know her when the girl gets pregnant) are lambasted. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when an elderly woman with dementia dies, achieving a terrible dignity, the film asking questions about who the real mad people are. On balance I liked it rather more than not, but won’t be in any hurry to watch it again.

Though it’s set thirty years later, Australia bears more than a passing resemblance to the Crowe/Rampling vehicle. Again, it’s mostly told from the perspective of a young boy, Nullah, who is half aborigine and half white. And again, there’s an unlikely love match. Hugh Jackman is the rough and ready Drover, hired to run a cattle drive, but sneered at by much of polite society because of his aborigine connections. Nicole Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, who has journeyed to Australia to convince her husband to sell his farm and come back to Britain, only to find that he is dead, ostensibly killed by the renegade aborigine King George.

The difference is that though they go through a lot, these two lovers do come up smelling of roses at the end. And there are also bona fide bad guys to be dealt with – the ambitious beef man King Carney, ruthless henchman Fletcher, and the Japanese military. Along the way we get a considered critique of Australian attitudes to the natives, with the duplicity and acquisitiveness of the one playing counterpoint to the honesty and simplicity of the other.

I enjoyed it in a pass the time sort of way, with some beautiful scenery paraded before the camera, and a quite exciting finale as everybody tries to kill each other. The only bum note was sounded by Kidman’s early attempts at an upper class English gell’s accent – she sounded like Miss Piggy on helium – but once past that the story rolled out in an agreeable manner.

All the same, I feel no great need to ever watch the film again, which is just as well really as the DVD was lent me by Ms P and she wants it back (something to do with a pressing need for Hugh Jackman eye candy).

And that’s your lot, folks!

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