FARAWAY DOWNS | Disney+ | November 16, 2023
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Bryan Brown, Brandon Walters, Ben Mendelsohn, David Wenham, Jack Thompson
Directed By: Baz Luhrmann
The story centers on English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who travels halfway across the world to confront her wayward husband and sell an unusual asset: Faraway Downs, a million-acre cattle ranch in the Australian outback. Following the death of her husband, a ruthless Australian cattle baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown) plots to take her land, and she reluctantly joins forces with a rough-hewn cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) to protect her ranch. The sweeping adventure-romance is explored through the eyes of young Nullah (Brandon Walters), an Indigenous Australian child caught up in the government’s Draconian racial policy now referred to as the Stolen Generations. Together, the trio experiences four life-altering years, a love affair between Lady Ashley and the drover, and the unavoidable impact of World War II on Northern Australia.
REVIEW By Darren Zakus
Faraway Downs breathes new life into Baz Luhrmann’s Australia for the film’s fifteenth anniversary with a reimagined, extended cut of his epic romance featuring the star studded pairing of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman that is certain to be a hit amongst fans of the original film.
I still remember the profound effect Australia had on me when I first watched it upon its release. It was a sweeping, grand romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Australian outback as the threat of the Second World War loomed over the country, calling back to the old Hollywood epics like Gone with the Wind. The electrifying romantic chemistry between Nicole Kidman’s Lady Ashley and Hugh Jackman’s Drover lit up the screen, while the story of young Nullah became the heart and soul of the film. It was a Baz Luhrmann film through and through, and for the film’s fifteenth anniversary, Luhrmann has reimagined it as a six part episodic story by using over an hour of unused footage from the original shoot, which totalled more than 2 million feet of film reel. The result is Faraway Downs, a grand reimagining of Luhrmann’s film, of which is one of my all time favourite romances, that tells a richer version of the story than the theatrical runtime could not support.
Upon arriving in Darwin, Australia from England in 1939 weeks prior to the beginning of the Second World War, Lady Sarah Ashley discovers that her philandering husband has been killed, leaving her the owner of the cattle station he was operating in the Australian outback. While she initially wants to sell the station to the local meat tycoon, Lady Ashley takes on management of the station to increase its value before selling and to care for the individuals who live on the ranch. This leads Lady Ashley to enlist the help of Drover, a local independent cattle drover, to help her drive the cattle to Darwin to sell them. As Lady Ashley spends more time in Australia, she begins to see why her husband fell in love with this land while caring for a young indigenous boy who lives on the station named Nullah and developing feelings for Drover, all while the country braces for the impending attack of the Japanese during the Second World War.
In terms of story, Faraway Downs does not drastically change the overall story that Luhrmann originally told in Australia back in 2008. The plot points are familiar to fans of the film, but what Luhrmann has done is to fully flesh out the story by reincorporating scenes that were cut from the film. The majority of these scenes take place in the first chapter, adding a lot more narrative and character interactions before Lady Ashley arrives in Faraway Downs. Following on these additional scenes, the plot threads are continued throughout Faraway Downs, notably giving a more prominent part for Ben Mendelsohn’s Captain Dutton. There are some narrative changes, and while those who adore the original film may be put off by some of the changes Luhrmann has made in Faraway Downs, it is closer to his original vision for this epic tale than what was released in theatres. In addition, we are treated to more stunning and soaring shots of the Australian outback, allowing Mandy Walker’s cinematography to once again leave audiences speechless as they discover alongside Lady Ashley the beauty and wonder of the Australian outback.
The most impactful change to the reimagining is the reframing of the perspective of which the story is told from. While the original film prominently featured the viewpoint of Kidman’s Lady Ashley, this version leaves the storytelling to Brandon Walters’ Nullah. Luhrmann has added more narration from Nullah and shifted the focus to have Nullah telling his own story of his time with Lady Ashley, portraying the heart of the story with a fresh perspective. It provides a more authentic experience as this story about a young aboriginal boy is being told by him, not the non-aboriginal woman who cared for him. To accompany this change, Luhrmann has gotten a new musical score for the majority of the film, bringing an indigenous sound to the episodic story to further emphasize that this is Nullah’s story. This new vision for the story ties into Drover’s line about owning your story and ensuring that it is a good one, allowing this central theme of film to be achieved by Nullah more clearly in this reimagined version.
With all this being said, while watching Faraway Downs, it is impossible to not constantly compare it to Australia. And while Faraway Downs is without question a wonderful reimagining, there are some areas where Australia is superior to it. It may be minor to some viewers, but I preferred the musical cues in the film over those used in Faraway Downs. While some musical cues are the same, such as the unforgettable foxtrot music for Lady Ashley and Drover’s dance, some are missing that lovers of Australia have come to associate with this story, such as the use of “Nimrod” which helped give a triumphant conclusion to the film. The removed cues do not work with the narrative shift of the story being told by Nullah, so it makes sense that they are removed, but they will for sure be missed by fans of the film.
Though, it was the breaks within each chapter that bothered me the most. The show has cuts within each chapter where the screen goes black, where commercials would play if this was airing on cable television. I found this to be very distracting as it cut the emotional buildup of the story as it feels like the series turns off for a brief moment, versus the film where the building continues with nonstop imagery and music. While I have no issues with breaking the story into six chapters and ending with a cliffhanger, as it creates a more digestible version of the story rather than watching the almost three hour film and amplifies certain narrative points, the breaks within each chapter felt unnecessary as this is a streaming release where commercials are not the norm and won’t be seen by those who are watching it.
There is no question that fans of Australia are going to enjoy this expanded version of Baz Luhrmann’s epic tale of romance and adventure, despite the changes he has made to the beloved story in Faraway Downs. This episodic retelling will never be able to eclipse the original film which is near and dear to my heart, but this almost four hour version is a wonderful way to celebrate the enduring legacy of Australia. Featuring an enriched version of the story that gives a voice to the Stolen Generation of Australia through an emphasis of Nullah’s narration of his own story, Faraway Downs captures the sweeping romance, adventure and danger of Baz Luhrmann’s beloved film that is every bit as emotional, even if fans will no doubt nitpick the changes made to their beloved film.