The Australian renaissance

Australia, where some of the earliest feature films had been produced, had long fallen into a creative slump. But in the 1970s, a combination of favorable tax breaks and government incentives allowed a new generation of “down under” filmmakers to break through to international prominence. Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) was an early hit, followed by his Breaker Morant (1980), a military period drama. Subsequently, Beresford went to the United States to direct Driving Miss Daisy (1989), following in the steps of other indigenous filmmakers who leave their native countries to make bigger but perhaps less adventurous films in Hollywood. George Miller made the violent action film Mad Max (1979), propelling the Australian-born Mel Gibson to instant stardom; Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) was an even greater success. Miller, too, moved to Hollywood, to direct such films as The Witches ofEastwick (1987) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998).


Australian directors of note in this period include Fred Schepisi, whose The Chant ofJimmie Blacksmith (1978) addressed racial problems at home, and Gillian Armstrong, whose breakthrough film was the feminist-inflected My Brilliant Career (1978). Peter Weir’s fortunes took off beginning with the mysterious, Antonioni-like parable Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and he moved on to the equally ambiguous allegory The Last Wave (a k a Black Rain, 1977), the historical drama Gallipoli (1981), and the action thriller The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). But Weir, too, succumbed to the lure of Hollywood, continuing his career with such mainstream fare as Philip Noyce began his career with the racial drama Backroads (1977), then moved on to a sentimental story about Australian newsreel cameramen in the 1940s and 1950s, Newsfront (1978). This was followed by the expert thriller Dead Calm (1989), loosely based on Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, which offered a very young Nicole Kidman one of her first leading roles. Since then, Noyce’s work has fluctuated wildly, from the straightforward Hollywood thrillers Patriot
Games (1992) and Sliver (1993) to The Saint (1997), an unsuccessful revival of the 1960s television series. He then turned in some of his finest work to date, particularly The Quiet American (2002), based on Graham Greene’s novel, starring Michael Caine as a weak-willed journalist in Saigon at the beginning of the Vietnam War, and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), a historical drama featuring Kenneth Branagh as a vicious racist who attempts to reeducate Aboriginal children against their will.

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Moulin Rouge! (2001) are spectacular paeans to excess, both visual and narrative. Probably the most commercial director of the Australian New Wave, Luhrmann also released the hit pop single “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” in 1999 as a singer.

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The Australian renaissance