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For Once, Maximalism Makes a Baz Luhrmann Movie Feel Less Like a Baz Luhrmann Movie

Faraway Downs' extended runtime smooths out some of Australia's rough edges, but it also undercuts its "Baz-ness."
  • Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Faraway Downs (Photo: Hulu)
    Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Faraway Downs (Photo: Hulu)

    15 years ago, an epic romance arrived in movie theaters over the Thanksgiving holiday to a storm of snobbery from critics. No, not Twilight, but Baz Luhrmann’s ode to his down under home, Australia. On this somewhat unceremonious anniversary, he has transformed it into a Hulu limited series, retitled Faraway Downs.

    His follow-up to his divisive Best Picture nominee Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann’s film casts Nicole Kidman as haughty British Lady Sarah who travels to her husband’s Australian cattle ranch at the brink of WWII. There she finds her husband murdered, begins to care for a biracial Aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), and begins to fall for an enigmatic cattleman known enigmatically as The Drover and played by Hugh Jackman at his most beefcake— yes, even by Wolverine standards.

    Luhrmann presented audiences with a story that tried to cram in a half dozen genres while paying homage to massive films like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, paying tribute to his home country while grappling with its genocidal history towards its indigenous population. It’s safe to say it’s a lot of movie to wrap your head around. Audiences and critics alike came out disappointed and more than a little frustrated.

    Foremost among the complaints was the film’s length and how well Luhrmann meshed its many tones. In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum lamented, “Long before the second hour of Australia (which feels like the fifth), it’s clear that Luhrmann hasn’t found a satisfactory way to make a movie nearly as ballsy — or coherent — as he wants his creation to be.” (The film did have its fans, among them Roger Ebert.)

    Australia managed a solitary Oscar nomination for Catherine Martin’s costume design (Luhrmann’s partner has been nominated for either her costumes or set design for every Luhrmann film since William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, winning four times). It made slightly more money at the global box office than Moulin Rouge! despite costing nearly three times as much to produce. Immediately, the film was chalked up as a disappointment, becoming a somewhat forgotten footnote to the careers of its stars and iconoclast director.

    Now comes the director’s recut somewhat out of the blue, well after the film has become somewhat forgotten prestige fare. It’s a television event no one asked for, an experiment so indulgent and high-on-its-supply that it could have only come from the grandmaster of excess himself, Baz Luhrmann. That vanity project you thought was too long and arduous? Now he’s here to give you more of it. Well, sort of. Without credits, Faraway Downs clocks in at 37 minutes longer than the theatrical version, which is still a surprisingly slim amount to justify six whole episodes.

    However, Faraway Downs is ultimately not the prestige auteur answer to Zack Snyder’s Justice League, maybe the first example of director’s cut via serialized streaming. Luhrmann isn’t presenting a demonstrably different film as Snyder did. In terms of jettisoned plot points or story expansion, you won’t find much in Faraway Downs that wasn’t already a part of Australia. The limited series does also add a land acknowledgment recognizing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, expanding from the contextual content warning you’ll find when watching the theatrical version on Hulu.

    The most significant new footage comes at the midpoint, when a dangerous short-cut journey through the harrowing Never Never desert brings a (second) near brush with death for Nullah. And some Australian upper class doing the “Hokey Pokey.” But aside from these moments, a restructured opening, and new music cues peppered throughout, audiences who have already seen the film will find Faraway Downs to include almost exactly everything they remember.

    One thing Australia was always missing, in its throwback grandeur, was a grand opening credits sequence to serve as an overture to the epicness that follows. Faraway Downs corrects this with a pop-y and dramatic title sequence, spectacularly animated by Waringarri Aboriginal Arts.

    Instead, the extended version affords more breathing room to several sequences, giving the audience more space to understand what is happening amidst Luhrmann’s trademark rapid-fire editing. Did a quick montage in the film confuse you whether or not the big baddie murdered the medium baddie by maybe feeding him to an alligator? That action now plays out in full and as an episode cliffhanger, clarifying for the audience not only what is happening (yeah, David Wenham definitely feeds that guy to an alligator) but also that the story’s stakes are getting more intense.

    Australia also slingshots the audience from one genre to the next, starting as screwball comedy then suddenly becoming a western, swan-diving in romance before ricocheting into a war film. Faraway Downs not only smooths the transition between genres, but it almost compartmentalizes them into separate episodes, with titles like “Adventure,” “Romance,” and “War.” Serialization, in this case, somehow makes Luhrmann’s jarring tones feel less disjointed.

    Something about its relative tameness makes Faraway Downs feel significantly less Baz. You want Luhrmann making head-spinning populist freakshow entertainment, and taking Faraway Downs through an episodic format makes it feel ever so slightly watered down. But it’s also not likely many viewers will consider Faraway Downs a limited series, or watch without binging. It will essentially remain a movie.

    If nothing else, comparing the two versions of Luhrmann’s epic serves as a lesson in how the storytelling sausage gets made in the editing room — or rather, how the same amount of meat gets stuffed into a smaller casing. Even after the early aughts success of Peter Jackson’s bladder-busting The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Luhrmann was no doubt pressured to release the shortest running time as possible. Australia shows the strain of trying to fit a big canvas story into a below-three-hour package; Faraway Downs proves that giving that story more time can make it more coherent and ultimately less endurance-testing.

    Today, 3.5 hour epics are more commonplace and length has not proven to be a deterrent to making money — just look at the all-timer grosses for Avengers: Endgame and Avatar: The Way of Water. That hasn’t stopped online complainers from making claims that films such as Killers of the Flower Moon “should have just been a miniseries.” Faraway Downs gives that (annoying) audience what they might be asking for, and unfortunately might prove their point by being better than the original. But, again, it’s still more a movie than a TV show.

    The experiment of Faraway Downs still begs a question: who is going to actually tune in? As toxic as the Snyder fanbase repeatedly proved itself to be, they did show there was a fervent (if rarified) audience for a recut. The demand for a longer cut of Australia is considerably smaller, and while Faraway Downs is unquestionably better, it’s not likely to convert any Australia haters.

    Perhaps a better function for the series is to allow reassessment of an unfairly maligned film, with the primary complaint against it (its length) nullified by a new format. Back in 2008, Stephanie Zecharek wrote in Salon, “I left Australia feeling drained and weakened, as if I'd suffered a gradual poisoning at the hands of a mad scientist." In ways instructive and fascinating, Faraway Downs is Baz correcting the dosage.

    Faraway Downs is streaming on Hulu.

    Chris Feil is a freelancer writer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His previous work can be found at Vulture, Vice, Paste, and The Film Experience. Follow him @chrisvfeil on Twitter.

    TOPICS: Faraway Downs, Hulu, Baz Luhrmann, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman