by Jason Coffman
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Australia is the kind of film that you’re basically on board with before you even see it or you’re not at all. It’s a sweeping epic (which means it’s 165 minutes long) that takes place in a land of thick accents (but no subtitles!) and concerns a grand romance between two incredibly attractive leads (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, apparently still fresh from making Wolverine movies). Also, it’s a film by Baz Luhrmann, who is perhaps best known as the director of 2001’s hyperkinetic musical Moulin Rouge!, which is just about as divisive a film as you’re ever likely to come across. I suppose there are people for whom Luhrmann’s name is enough to either a) send them to the theater post-haste or b) prevent them from ever seeing more of Australia than they can help. That would be a shame, though, because while the opening half-hour or so of the film feels somewhat similar to Moulin Rouge!, Australia soon settles into a less frantic, more traditional style.
The film opens with titles explaining how many mixed-race children were taken from their families and placed into state custody. These children, who often had white fathers and Aboriginal mothers, were called the Stolen Generations. In short order, we are introduced to one such child: Nullah (Brandon Walters) is the child of white ranch hand Fletcher (David Wenham) and one of the young female servants of Faraway Downs, a remote outpost deep in the Australian outback. Faraway Downs is owned by Maitland Ashley, whose wife Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) tires of his adventuring and flies to Australia to convince him to sell the land and return to England. Unfortunately, Maitland is killed just before Sarah arrives, and the murder is blamed on Nullah’s grandfather King George (David Gulpilil). Rather suspiciously, however, Maitland was the only person standing between beef magnate King Carney (Bryan Brown) and a total monopoly that would force the Australian army’s hand into an unfair deal for cattle to feed their troops.
Lady Ashley decides to finish her husband’s job and, with the assistance of the reluctant Drover (Hugh Jackman) and a ragtag group including Nullah and boozing accountant Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), begins the arduous task of driving 1500 head of cattle across the Outback to Darwin, a port town where an Australian army supply ship waits. The drive across the Outback is beautiful and often thrilling; the fact that it’s only about the first half of the film is a bit of a shock. It’s perhaps not overstatement to say that Luhrmann was aiming to make the Australian equivalent of Gone With the Wind— which, in this case, also includes a strong helping of WW II action as well. Luhrmann addresses a lot of history in this one film, so much that it feels a little overstuffed and awkward. It’s a lot to take in.
Unsurprisingly, Australia is absolutely gorgeous, which helps things along. The film uses a stylized visual shorthand in the early going that’s reminiscent of Moulin Rouge!’s repeated quick-zooms, but once the characters and setting are established the rhythm of the film becomes more conventional. And “conventional” seems like the right word here, but that’s not a knock against the film at all. Luhrmann wants to make big entertainment pictures in the grand Hollywood tradition, and he succeeds spectacularly. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are excellent as the leads, as glamorous and bigger than life as any of their counterparts in epics of Hollywood past. Luhrmann crams enough into the film’s nearly three-hour running time to keep it from ever being dull, even if a lot of the action is highly predictable.
Still, it’s not unpredictability that the film aims for. It’s a big, sweeping, slightly awkward romantic adventure epic that includes breathtaking scenery and astonishing set pieces while addressing part of Australia’s past that many audiences will find fascinating. With Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann created a spectacle that invigorated the concept of the movie musical, mixing a good old-fashioned “cast of thousands” mentality with very modern filmmaking techniques. With Australia, Luhrmann has created a film that is a tribute to the great widescreen epics he no doubt grew up on instead of a reinvention of them. In short: if you wish they still made ‘em like they used to, you’ll probably appreciate Australia’s spectacular (and familiar) charms.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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