Embracing grand old-school melodrama while critiquing racist old-fashioned politics, Baz Luhrmann’s grandiose “Australia” provides a luxurious bumpy ride; like a Rolls-Royce on a rocky country road, it’s full of bounces and lurches, but you can’t really complain about the seat. Deliberately anachronistic in its heightened style of romance, villainy and destiny, the epic lays an Aussie accent on colorful motifs drawn from Hollywood Westerns, war films, love stories and socially conscious dramas. Some of it plays, some doesn’t, and it is long. But the beauty of the film’s stars and landscapes, the appeal of the central young boy and, perhaps more than anything, the filmmaker’s eagerness to please tend to prevail, making for a film general audiences should go with, even if they’re not swept away. Robust, but not boffo, box office looks in store.
Putting his “Red Curtain Trilogy” of “Strictly Ballroom,” “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” behind him, Luhrmann here embarks on an announced trilogy of epics, although it remains to be seen whether or not the intended first installment, his long-in-the-works but thwarted “Alexander the Great,” is still part of the package. Although there are no homages here per se, other than explicitly to “The Wizard of Oz,” one feels a multitude of influences coursing through the images, from the likes of “Duel in the Sun,” “The African Queen,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Red River,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Searchers,” “Out of Africa” and “Giant.”
But to a significant extent, the film is also a mea culpa, in a vast popular-entertainment format, for the cruel racial policies once imposed by the Australian government upon Aboriginals in general and, specifically, half-castes, who were aggressively swept out of sight. It was one of Luhrmann’s best ideas to make the film’s narrator the prepubescent Nullah (Brandon Walters), a charming boy who not only observes the vast sweep of the story but provides its fulcrum.
One of Nullah’s first remarks, that the Englishwoman newly arrived at the remote Northern Territory ranch of Faraway Downs is “the strangest woman I’d ever seen,” gets a laugh, as the sight of the prim, uptight and discomfited Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) definitely looks comically absurd. Coming there in September 1939 to deal with her husband’s presumed infidelity, Sarah could scarcely be more out of place on the rundown estate occupied by rough cattlemen and Aboriginal help, and Kidman is unafraid to look ridiculous as her character presents herself at the brink of hysteria.
Self-consciously jaunty exposition and over-the-top boisterousness — Sarah’s lingerie is spilled out in front of a saloon for the delectation of the rowdy drunks — gets the film off to a choppy start. But in broad, simple strokes, and with characters that are archetypes rather than real-world credible, Luhrmann makes very clear everything the audience needs to know: Sarah, finding her husband murdered, determines to hold on to Faraway Downs, which she can only do by driving 1,500 head of cattle to the Darwin port, where the Australian military will purchase them; the only one who can manage this is the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rugged Aussie cowboy who’s himself an outcast due to his friendliness toward Aboriginals; Sarah and the Drover are destined for each other, but only after much squabbling; bad guys — King Carney (Bryan Brown) and Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) — will try to thwart the drive, and Nullah must be protected from officials determined to send him to Mission Island, where half-caste boys are detained.
Manned by a motley crew consisting of the Drover, Sarah, Nullah, Drover’s Aboriginal mate Magarri (David Ngoombujarra), a drunken bookkeeper with the colorful name of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), household helper Bandy (Lillian Crombie) and Chinese cook Sing Song (Yuen Wah), the cattle drive starts at pic’s 55-minute mark, and one imagines it will last a while. But after a dramatic stampede so CGI-heavy that it may as well have been animated, and a campfire interlude that ignites the inevitable between the Drover and the now loosened-up Sarah, the drive quickly comes to an end after just 25 minutes, leading to a notable mid-pic lull in Darwin during which it’s unclear where things might be headed.
A fancy dress ball provides the platform for official racism and disapproval of the likes of Nullah, the Drover and even upper-class Sarah, who by now is determined to adopt the orphaned kid. Shadowing them wherever they go is Nullah’s grandfather, King George (vet David Gulpilil), a mystical practioner of traditional ways who provides the film with its strongest link to the continent’s native inhabitants.
After everything had looked so bright by the end of act two, everything is now in disarray, with the protags having gone their separate ways — for his part, Nullah has announced his intention to do his walkabout. Final third is dominated by the Japanese bombing of Darwin (on Feb. 19, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor) and the Drover’s stealthy nocturnal attempt to rescue children from nearby Mission Island. Much has been made of Luhrmann’s admission of having shot several different endings, and while pic irritatingly has several potential concluding scenes, the actual finale is rather touching, with a mixed mood that feels right.
Perhaps because it is largely an outdoor picture, the film’s style is less ripe and florid than Luhrmann’s previous three; although not as leisurely as many epics, the pulse is lower than the director’s standard alarmingly high rate. Lensing by Mandy Walker, who shot such films as “Lantana” and “Shattered Glass” and previously worked with Luhrmann on his Chanel No. 5 campaign with Kidman, is excellent, but many of the images appear worked in different ways and the CGI backgrounds, particularly in the Darwin sequences, are not of the highest standard.
Crucially for such a glamorous big-star vehicle, however, the leads are beautifully lit. Alabaster-complexioned, with blonde hair pulled back tight and lips puffed, Kidman could scarcely be wound more tightly at first. But Jackman’s Drover eventually works his ways on her, and she looks much better with a tan and in more native garb later on. Her intrinsic tension and worry are given a proper contrast by Jackman, whose sheer competence at everything he does disarms the lady’s disdain for his uncouthness. Women and not a few men will marvel at a stripped-down Jackman’s sculpted torso as he rinses himself off in the campfire light, and the actor, making his first film in his homeland in many years, acquits himself manfully no matter what the occasion calls for.
But equally vital is young Walters. Eleven when the film was made, the attractive non-pro has a natural ease and winning way before the camera as the character who represents the tension in the country’s racial divide and historical conscience.
Other perfs are as exaggerated in line with the general approach, most notably Wenham’s as the ever-evil Fletcher; Luhrmann may as well have pasted a Snidely Whiplash moustache on him and been done with it.
Score by David Hirschfelder and other hands never stops, while production and costume design by Luhrmann’s wife and perennial collaborator, Catherine Martin, are notable without being as dominant as they were in the “Red Curtain” extravaganzas. Pic takes plenty of advantage of diverse natural Australian locations.