It’s fascinating to see filmmakers returning to tinker with long since dormant or completed projects, like Faraway Downs, after months, years, or decades away, even if the result don’t always top the original version or improve upon it in any way. When a filmmaker is finally able to bring their original vision for a movie to audiences, or they’re able to correct past mistakes with the benefit of hindsight, it’s almost always more interesting than it is a groundbreaking achievement. Just ask George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, or Francis Ford Coppola. But there’s no denying that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to admit to the public that they could’ve done something better.
Enter Baz Luhrmann, the gonzo auteur behind such well liked films as Moulin Rouge, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, and Elvis, who now gets a second crack at reworking the biggest critical and commercial disappointment of his career, Australia, with the six part limited series Faraway Downs. Or as the opening titles suggest: “A Baz Luhrmann film told in six chapters.” Now with the opportunity to go back over the two million feet of footage he shot for his 2008 epic (not an exaggeration, his own words), Luhrmann finally has a chance to make the sort of finished product he wishes he could’ve brought to audiences, ballooning the overall running time from two hours and forty-five minutes to somewhere just around four hours in total. No new scenes have been shot to enhance Faraway Downs, with Luhrmann working exclusively from his previously existing footage.
But instead of making Australia more interesting, Luhrmann has made Faraway Downs into something even more ungainly than its already lacking original version. Australia was not a good movie to begin with: maudlin, overstuffed, and constantly unable to decide if it wants to be a stylish modern epic or an old Hollywood indebted piece of claptrap set in the outback. Faraway Downs – whether you want to call it a series or a movie – is the exact same final product as Australia was on a surface level: tonally messy, full of poorly handled sentimentality, and looking like a zillion bucks without delivering a satisfying bit of entertainment or art. Faraway Downs isn’t necessarily worse than Australia, and definitely not better. It’s just much, much longer than an already overlong movie needed to be in the first place.
The story of Faraway Downs is the same as it was before. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a wealthy pre-World War II London aristocrat, sets off to track down her absenteed husband at his secluded cattle ranch a few hundred miles outside of Darwin, Australia. When she arrives, she finds that her husband has been murdered – supposedly by a local aboriginal medicine man (the late David Gulpilil) – and the massive expanse of land known as Faraway Downs and all the cattle on it are now her property. Faraway Downs is the only thing keeping wealthy cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his lackey, Fletcher (Luhrmann regular David Wenham, the biggest standout here) from creating a beef monopoly in the outback. Lady Sarah decides she wants to make a go of things, and enlists the help of the swarthy, macho, and gruff cattleman Drover (Hugh Jackman) and a local aboriginal boy (Brandon Walters), who might be Fletcher’s illegitimate son, to help run the ranch. Underhanded business tactics, sabotage, sexism, racism, betrayals, brutal outback heat, and the impending march of war threaten Faraway Downs, but the relationship between the woman, man, and boy at the heart of it only strengthens over time.
One of the things Luhrmann wants to accomplish with Faraway Downs is to give more screen time to the aboriginal aspects of the story, focusing on Australia’s Stolen Generation of indigenous, mixed race youths who were separated from their families and forced into residential schools. It’s a topic that holds even more relevancy and is assuredly more in the public consciousness than it was back in 2008, but for as much as Luhrmann says he wants to place this issue at the forefront of Faraway Downs, he’s failing at it mightily. Sure, there’s a land acknowledgement to pay respect to aboriginal peoples and the title sequence has been lovingly crafted and animated by indigenous artists, but beyond that, Faraway Downs remains a white saviour movie where it’s up to the wealthy elites and good hearted Australians to save the lives of these children in need, and in typical Luhrmann fashion, via the least subtle and most emotionally reductive and manipulative ways possible. If you’ve seen Australia, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you don’t necessarily need to.
But to solely take Faraway Downs to task for failing at the very advocacy Luhrmann wants to engage in by making all of his aboriginal characters into “period appropriate” cinematic stereotypes is to overlook the fact that everything else here is a mess, too. The romance between an overacting Kidman and a perpetually nonplussed Jackman is pure soap opera stuff. The main plot wraps up relatively early, before the whole thing shifts into war movie territory for the grand finale, making an already overlong project feel even more punishing in spite of all the spectacle. The tone keeps wildly shifting between being purposefully corny, darkly sinister, somewhat mystical, and crowd pleasing 1940s era theatricality. Faraway Downs, like its predecessor, never goes into a lane long enough to generate any momentum, which is deadly for a project that’s really only different from its previous incarnation by additional length and padding.
Well, if nothing else, the ending is different, but one could argue that it’s a change for the worse. It’s a bigger risk, but not necessarily a better one, especially coming out of something that’s a long sit for most viewers. It’s certainly more stunning than ever to look at, thanks to Luhrmann’s ability to simultaneously remaster everything while he’s giving it all another pass, but that only helps to highlight the overwhelming size of the project itself, not the underwhelming, cliched, and confused story. Australia might be Luhrmann’s worst film by a rather wide margin, but it was an example of someone trying and failing, which is better than not trying at all, I guess. Faraway Downs is just unnecessary and not worth the effort. All it succeeds at doing is making an extended sequence where the heroes have to spend days moving cattle across the dangerous and arid outback feel like the viewer is crossing “an area roughly the size of Belgium.”
All six instalments of Faraway Downs are available to stream in Canada on Disney+ starting Sunday, November 26, 2023.
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