Thursday, January 1, 2009

Of Epics and Gothic Tales

Over the holidays I went to see the new Baz Luhrman movie, Australia, and I also read The Thirteenth Tale, a novel by Diane Setterfield. What, you may ask, do these two things have to do with each other? One is a film in the epic style about life in remote parts of Australia during World War II. The other is a novel in the gothic style about a mysterious best selling author who is slowly revealing her life story to a biographer. Although they are very different, the reminded me of each other.

Australia is every western you've ever seen combined with many World War II (and possibly other war) movies, in the same way that his Moulin Rouge was every tuberculosis driven opera you've ever seen. This is not a bad thing, necessarily. It's fun watching these films and thinking "aha! that was similar to ...." something you haven't seen in years. And while he could do this kind of pastiche as a comedy, making fun of the genres he chooses, he doesn't. There is humor but he seems to choose genres he loves and the films are more of an homage than anything else.

Near the beginning of Australia, as Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from England to Australia against all advice (World War II is beginning), the camera traces her plane traveling across a hand drawn map of Europe much like the start of Casablanca. Once in the wilds of Australia she is reliant on a dirty (literally), uncouth, but practical cattle drover, known only as The Drover (Hugh Jackman), and the relationship between the prissy Sarah and the Drover is reminiscent of the relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

But the film soon turns into a Western. In a scene reminiscent of The Big Country, Lady Sarah asks when they will get to Faraway Downs, the cattle station owned by her husband and the Drover tells her they have been on the land for two days. Yes, there is an actual cattle drive across the plains of Australia in a desperate effort to save Faraway Downs (Lady Sarah's husband has been brutally murdered and the local cattle king wants to buy her land for much less than it is worth). The sweeping landscape shots in this part of the film reminded me a combination of a John Ford movie and Out of Africa.

There is also, of course, the requisite innocent half-breed child named Nullah who must be saved - after Lady Sarah tells him the story of the Wizard of Oz and sings a hilarious version of "Over the Rainbow" that is exactly what you might expect of someone who heard the song once in a movie theater and not hundreds of times on DVDs over the years. The story of Nullah is the heart of the film and it is what keeps the film from tumbling over into a complete and total mess. Nullah kept me engaged in the story and stopped me from the fatal "pulling out" , where I start to analyze the movie instead of giving myself over to the necessary suspension of disbelief. The story of Nullah and his grandfather "King George" is also the moral heart of the story as Luhrman exposes the racism that has always plagued Australia (as it has plagued this country).

In true epic fashion the successful cattle drive and romantic kiss between Lady Sarah and the Drover is not the end, it is just the lead-up to the second part of the movie - World War II. In fact, in "olden days" there probably would have been an intermission here so everyone could go on out to the lobby and buy themselves a coke. The bombing raids on Darwin (this part is true) and the requisite wide camera sweeps through devastation with the subsequent evacuation of Darwin are every Pearl Harbor movie you've ever seen combined with Gone With the Wind. We also have a brave rescue of a group of children off of a local island (where we catch site of actual evil Japanese soldiers murdering people in cold blood) - this part reminded me a bit of parts of Father Goose.

If this sounds cliched, well ... it is. But somehow it didn't matter. Baz Luhrman loves movies and it shows and somehow he manages to string it all together into a story that holds the attention. At two hours and forty-five minutes, the highest praise I can give this film is that when it was over I was surprised at how much time had elapsed. Much of the credit goes to the cast who embrace the genre as much as Baz Luhrman and who never look uncomfortable with the melodrama. It isn't a film that works on every level, but I didn't really expect much when I bought the ticket and was pleasantly surprised by how entertained I was by it.

The Thirteenth Tale had been enthusiastically recommended to me by my mother and my sister, both of whom assured me that I would love it. I'm not sure I loved it, but it kept my interest and I raced through it in only a couple of days. It was, for me, the definition of a page turner.

This is Setterfield's first novel and it is quite an accomplishment. Although set in the present time, much of the story takes place sixty years earlier in the early 20th century. The prolific but mysterious best selling writer Vida Winter has at last decided to reveal her "true" story, but it soon becomes clear that the truth is veiled in mystery.

The Thirteenth Tale is a book version of what Baz Luhrman did with film - an homage to many favorite novels. Primarily there is Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the mysterious house and a mysterious fire. But there is also Henry James' Turn of the Screw with a ghost and mysterious, slightly evil (or at least strange) children. Of course there is a governess. Of course there is a housekeeper (actually there are two). There is madness. There is alleged depravity.

There are actually two mysterious houses - the fire ruined home of the Angelfield family and the beautiful Yorkshire home of Vida Winter with its beautiful garden (I feel sure I was supposed to think of Vita Sackville-West and her beautiful garden as well as Mrs. deWinter of Rebecca).

As I said, it is a true page turner. Those who want to study how to engross the reader and keep her coming back chapter after chapter would do well to study this novel. And yet, I must say that I felt it was essentially heartless. Unlike Australia which is saved by the touching reality of its characters, especially little Nullah, I found it impossible to be truly attached to any of the characters in The Thirteenth Tale and deep down I didn't really care how it ended. The characters who did, in fact, have happy endings were secondary characters. And the principal character, the biographer Margaret, was too cerebral for me to warm up to. But it was a good mystery that kept me reading. In fact, I guessed the ending a number of chapters before it was revealed but I still wanted to see how Setterfield got us to the end.

This is the novel that you want with you on a long flight to Europe or when you are snowed in for a weekend. This is not a novel to start when your life is busy and you don't have much time to read. Setterfield is a master at keeping you reading, even when you really need to stop. I'll be interested in what her next novel brings.