Baz Luhrmann revives the Hollywood spectacle

When it’s suggested to director Baz Luhrmann that he’s made another modest little movie, the director of “Australia” returns the tongue-in-cheekiness in kind: “Well, you know me,” he says. “All modesty.”

Yet despite a relatively modest $20 million opening — for the biggest undertaking of Luhrmann’s brashly immodest career — the $130 million epic appears to contain all the necessary nutrients for best pic contention: Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, People magazine’s “sexiest man alive” Hugh Jackman and a list of credits that would stretch from Sydney to Perth. According to the filmmaker, “Australia” is an old-fashioned dramatic banquet, “where you have a light opener, then the main course, then dessert and you can bring the family.”

Which — Luhrmann admits — is “extremely uncool” but is likely to hit a nerve among Oscar voters nostalgic for the emotional epics of John Ford, David Lean and George Stevens, all of whom Luhrmann cites as inspirations.

As Time magazine’s Richard Schickel aptly put it, “There is some essential human desire, lately denied at the cinema, to see pretty people in handsome landscapes assuaging our need for epic romance. On that level, ‘Australia’ delivers with real panache.” And after a year when many industryites were bemoaning the dearth of the Hollywood spectacle as a legitimate player in the Oscar race, “Australia” — mixed reviews and all — strikes a nostalgic chord.

“If it’s old-fashioned,” Luhrmann says, “that’s because it’s funny, because there’s an aim at direct emotion, and it’s a story that’s exalted through landscape. But the perspective isn’t linear: It’s Sarah’s story, then it’s Drover’s, it’s the kid’s. It’s like ‘Giant,’ except we’re swapping oil for cattle. It’s called ‘Australia,’ but it’s not about Australia, any more than ‘Casablanca’ is about Casablanca. It’s a transitional place, a faraway place” — hence the film’s recurrent “Wizard of Oz” motif — “and it’s being seen from the perspective of foreigners.”

The most foreign, at least at the outset, is Kidman’s Lady Sarah Ashley, who arrives in Outback cattle country from England only to find that her husband has been killed, allegedly by Aborigines but more likely by the local cattle baron, the appropriately named King Carney (Bryan Brown). Her unlikely alliance with the footloose Drover (Jackman) leads inevitably to romance and triumph on the moral high ground, surrounded at all times by the mystical narration of young Nullah (Brandon Walters), whose mixed-race ancestry supplies a sociopolitical subtext worthy of Lean.

“Did you know that if your president-elect were born in Australia, he might have been put in an institution?” Luhrmann asks, referring to Australia’s onerous race laws, which were reformed only as recently as the ’70s. “That’s how present this is.”

The last thing Luhrmann wanted to be with “Australia” was heavy- handed. “The entire country is about to see it,” he says, “probably because the entire country is in it.”

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