Film Review: Australia

If you check your brain at the door, you’ll enjoy much of this roistering, resolutely old-school jumble of clichés, lavishly packaged by an unusually restrained Baz Luhrmann.
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Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is, like most of his films, a gaudy mélange, mixing elements of Gone with the Wind, Out of Africa, Red River and even The Wizard of Oz. The surprising thing is how restrained it is, for a filmmaker who has rather come to be known as the Ken Russell of our times. Perhaps the director’s wish to make a movie that epically honored his homeland kept his florid hand in check, and the story emerges strongly without any splashy ADD digressions.

The story itself may pose a problem for some viewers averse to comic-book mystical deifications of Outback Aboriginal culture, or others who just might find the whole thing too derivative and simplistic a pastiche. It’s narrated by the child Nullah (Brandon Walters), who spins the tale of snippy Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) arriving on her cattle ranch Faraway Downs, only to find that her husband has been mysteriously killed. She learns that her villainous overseer Fletcher (David Wenham) is scheming with cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) to grab her land for themselves. She meets the Drover (Hugh Jackman), who helps her save her ranch by driving a herd of cattle across northern Australia to Darwin, where it will be sold to the army. Theirs is an initially combative relationship which inevitably turns to love, all of this observed by Nullah, whom they have saved from his precarious fate as a half-caste child forced away from his culture, as well as King George (David Gulpilil), an Aboriginal magic man, who pops up at regular intervals to help things along.

You can feel Luhrmann’s deep love and care in every frame of this lavishly produced film, filled with visual treats, as well as that of his totally committed stars. The cattle drive into Darwin has the impressive sweep of such classic western moments as the Oklahoma land rush in the 1931 Cimarron or the big drive of Howard Hawks’ Red River. The conjoining moments of the big Darwin ball, with Sarah and the Drover making their triumphant appearance together, intercut with Nullah’s first viewing of The Wizard of Oz, his face blackened so as to gain entrance into a cinema forbidden to mixed-bloods, actually achieve the kind of fairy-tale magic for which Luhrman strives so mightily.

But there’s an awful lot of verging-on-precious, breathless narrative babble by Nullah as the action unfolds, and the recurring shots of King George, eternally omniscient and, of course, wordless, begin to have a monotonous, hollowly pious quality that is just a drag for the audience. The archetypal nature of the other characters also negates absorbing complexity: Sarah predictably goes from uptight Katharine Hepburn-African Queen stuffiness to full-blooming Woman of the Prairie, Fletcher practically twirls his moustache like a silent-screen baddie, and the Drover is a lusty man’s man who—surprise!—has trouble expressing his feelings. These cardboard clichés do not really merit a nearly three-hour running time, despite the handy, cursory inclusion of World War II (in which yet another exalted Aborigine sacrifices his life heroically for the white man).

Kidman comes through with some comic moments in the beginning, sings an affecting “Over the Rainbow” to Nullah, and gives the romantic scenes her very professional all. Jackman fully deserves his recent silly elevation as “The Sexiest Man Alive,” displaying an impressive, highly unsettling-to-Sarah muscled torso, and he’s fully as dashing as Errol Flynn ever was, delivering impossibly heroic lines and feats of equine derring-do. Walter is an extremely pretty child, with a fortunate, appealing naturalness that goes a long way in subverting the more condescending qualities of his “pure spirit of the native soil” stereotype.