Review by Ethan Shaw
IT'S ruffles, can-can girls and leg-garters at the ready as Australian wunderkind Baz Luhrmann blazes back on the big screen with a heady tale of love, lust and boozy bordellos. Shifting from William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet to an 1899 Paris knocking-shop in one foul swoop may seem ambitious, but Luhrmann not only dispels the notion he's a one-hit-wonder, but also proves that finding the perfect foil to fittingly express one's talent takes time, effort and the ability to learn from mistakes and improve on successes.
Being a bit of a Bard purist, I for one was not wholly appreciative of his efforts in channelling such a great work through the lips of Leonardo Di Caprio by way of trashy mise-en-scene and zippy MTV-style direction.
True, it was innovative and his talent unquestionable; but still there was a feeling among many that such a fresh and impudent style may be better employed elsewhere. And how right that has been proved.
Freed from the shackles of such a restrictive work as Romeo & Juliet, Luhrmann allows himself to run unbridled and creates a fantastical world populated by spectacular dancing girls and drunken hedonism in which to weave his tale of intrigue, love, deceit and betrayal.
Set at the turn of the century, the action revolves around the Moulin Rouge, a positively vibrating melting pot of a dancing hall run by Jim Broadbent's manipulative Zidler, where all and sundry gather to let loose. Into the netherworld tumbles Ewan McGregor's penniless writer Christian who falls in with a bunch of struggling actors and is inspired (by The Sound of Music of all things) to write a musical.
After conning sumptuous courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman in vivacious form as the jewel in the Rouge's crown) into believing McGregor to be a wealthy Duke, the gang set about producing `Spectacular, Spectacular' - the hit to end all hits which will blow the roof off once and for all. Complications set in as Christian's cover is blown and Satine falls for him inspite of the considerable attentions being paid her by the real Duke (Richard Roxburgh as the villain of the piece), who's also financing the show.
Sounds complicated I know, but one of it's masterstrokes is convincing that there's very little going on, so the music - and, more importantly, Luhrmann's considerable creative idiosyncrasies - can run riot.
Where previously he was tied to a well-known script, here it's like a live comic improvisation workshop in full flow. Famous song lines and historic quotes trip off the tongue so naturally that their ironic impact is often lost in the thumping rhythm of the picture and the fabulously choreographed and speedily edited song and dance numbers. The pace really never lets up and the style works so much better than in his previous effort it's untrue. The always watchable McGregor is again on pretty charming form and a smouldering Kidman radiates sexuality in a plethora of increasingly revealing outfits.
An unlikely couple it may seem, but their blossoming love is far more believable in the flesh than it may at first appear on paper. Great performances aside, it's perhaps testament to Luhrmann that nobody (even the excellent gurning Broadbent - who's Like a Virgin rendition is surely the comic highlight - and John Leguizamo as diminutive troublemaker Toulous Lautrec) steals the show.
Instead it's a masterclass in creativity: mind-spinning camera tricks whirl through montages of dancing and debauchery as the musical set-pieces prove more imaginative at every turn. Less in terms of expounding story development makes way for most definitely more in visual power, with a result which prickles the neck, warms the heart and will bring a smile to even the coldest, harshest critic. A visceral treat, it's certainly not Shakespeare - but for once that proves a real plus.