20th Century Fox
At Quality 16 and Showcase
3 out of 5 stars
It seems a bit egotistical to give a movie the same moniker as the country it’s set in. By naming his film “Australia,” his first picture in seven years, it almost seems as if director Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”) is trying to represent absolutely everything found in the Land Down Under in a single film.
True or not, “Australia” is a wide-reaching mega-production in every sense, from its budget (reportedly over $150 million) to its star wattage (Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman) to its running time (nearly three hours). The film doesn’t quite live up to its big-picture standards and expectations, but the mere fact that it’s not a total disaster should be something to celebrate.
Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a stuffy British aristocrat whose husband owns a cattle ranch in the middle of the Outback in 1939. (Yes, the Aussie plays a Brit in a movie about her own country. Make of it what you will.) When word reaches her of some shady dealings taking place Down Under, she naively elects to pack her bags and travel to the property herself. After her husband’s mysterious death, she sets out to transport her massive herds of cattle several hundred miles across the vast terrain to the bustling port town of Darwin. To accomplish this feat, she enlists the help of a ruggedly handsome cattle drover, aptly named Drover (Jackman, “The Prestige”), along with a family of Aborigines who live on her ranch. All this would be enough for any normal movie to handle, but it’s just the first two hours of “Australia.”
It was wise of Luhrmann to make the conflict between whites and Aborigines a central theme of the film. Not many people realize that Australia’s treatment of its indigenous people in the World War II era mirrored America’s treatment of minorities during the same period. However, in what could be considered a desperate attempt to make amends, Luhrmann tends to deify his Aboriginal cast by depicting them as otherworldly symbols of the earth instead of actual flesh-and-blood characters. Excellent newcomer Brandon Walters narrates the story as a shiny-haired Aboriginal boy who Ashley dotes on like a son. The film gives him pseudo-magical powers and treats every line of his pidgin English like poetry.
For all its excess, “Australia” is not without soul. It’s clear the filmmakers have a true love for the land — the sweeping cinematography captures every distant mountain and threatening cliffside, and the CGI is integrated seamlessly. Luhrmann playfully embraces the conventions of epic-journey pictures and the character archetypes therein: Enter the bumbling drunk, the greedy villain and the frumpy, uptight old ladies. He doesn’t twist the genre as cleverly as he twisted the musical with “Moulin Rouge!,” but large-scale undertakings like these don’t leave much room to mess around. Still, the massive run time definitely hampers any further enjoyment of the film. Perhaps Luhrmann should have borrowed one more element from old-timey road-trip epics: intermission.