Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, David Ngoombujarra, Bryan Brown, Ray Barrett. (2008, R, 170 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 28, 2008
Luhrmann has never been afraid to go big, and with this, his long-awaited follow-up to 2001's Moulin Rouge, his canvas stretches as wide as the continent it chronicles. But the bigger the scope and the bigger the ambition, the less control Luhrmann seems to have over his epic productions. That anything-goes – and will – mentality befitted the lust-addled teens of William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and the burlesque theatricality of Moulin Rouge's courtesans and dwarves and murderous dukes, but Australia is cut from a different cloth. It's a fairly straightforward and occasionally quite involving love story between a man and a woman, a woman and an orphaned child, a people and the land. Kidman – her face lacquered into a look that teeters between imperious and quizzical – plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat who travels to Australia on the eve of World War II. Her goal is to reclaim a straying husband from the money pit of a cattle ranch he owns in northern Australia, called Faraway Downs (a name that quickly takes on the mythic quality of Tara). Lady Ashley hitches a ride to the ranch with a rough-and-tumble cattle driver known only as Drover (Jackman, game as ever), who rather ruffles her delicate sensibilities with his love of bar brawls and progressive views on the country's second-class citizenry, the indigenous aborigine. (That's not all Drover ruffles: Lady Ashley – alongside, I suspect, solidly 50% of the viewing audience – is not immune to the tight-pantsed Jackman, Australia's eye-candy designate.) Upon arrival at Faraway Downs, Lady Ashley discovers her husband has been shot dead, a nefarious cattle baron is seeking to buy out the ranch, and an adorable half-aborigine, half-white 6-year-old scamp named Nullah (newcomer Walters) is in danger of being forcibly taken from Faraway Downs as part of a government directive to remove all mixed-race children from their homes and train them for domestic service. And that's only the first 20 minutes. It's an overpacked film, to be sure, and Luhrmann front-loads the best stuff in the first of the film's three distinct sections, including a breakneck cliffside cattle stampede that ends in a gorgeous, three-person clutch that collapses to the ground, telegraphing the makeshift family unit that engines Australia. It's a fantastic set-piece and sets a standard, tonally and visually, that the film never again meets. (Curiously – and despite the on-location shoot – background landscapes tend to have the flat feel of green screen.) The problem goes back to control: Luhrmann wants it all – comedy and tragedy, bombast and wet-eyed sentimentality. When it works, his kid-in-a-candy-store giddiness is infectious. When it doesn't – when he goes from silly to turgid in 60 seconds flat – he punctures Australia's proportions down from epic to simply overwrought.