Like most film critics, I was pretty underwhelmed by Australia, the movie. It wasn’t just that Nicole Kidman’s forehead doesn’t move much (although she did give a good performance – I’m of the view that she really can act). It was also the nature of the “epic” tale the film sought to tell: it’s really about the Australian cattle industry. The two main characters squabble and spar and yes, eventually fall deeply in love while herding several hundred “head” of cattle across an unforgiving Australian landscape (crisis: no water; next crisis: the “bad” ranchers are on the scene) to the coast where they’re herded on to ships, eventually to be processed and fed to soldiers during World War II. Hmm. How timeless or even romantic is this, particularly as the basis of a nearly three hour film? Not very, I’d offer.
Not long after I saw the film, I read “Australia’s Dry Run” by Robert Drape in the April issue of National Geographic. The article details how a persistent drought and climate change is sapping the land and water in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. It’s a region where dairy and beef cattle, as well as other ungulates, have been concentrated for years, since white settlers began arriving down under. But it’s a “low nutrient landscape”, mostly arid, and made more so after the settlers chopped down 15 billion trees. Today, though, ranchers and rice farmers alike here are being bankrupted. There’s simply not enough water, and dairy operators use 1,000 gallons for each gallon of milk they produce. The topsoil is heavily degraded. Precipitation has become unpredictable and rare. Lakes are drying out. Ecosystems are on the verge of collapse. Internecine conflicts over who gets how much water and for what are common flashpoints. This is epic. Is Australia (the country this time) pointing the way to the future, something “Australia” couldn’t or wouldn’t do? Perhaps. As Draper writes, “A robust new landscape is required, and it’s up to Australia to show the rest of the industrialized world what that new landscape will be….a landscape that’s come to terms with its limits.”