Director(s): Baz Luhrmann
Writer(s): Stuart Beattie, Baz Luhrmann, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)Nov 26, 2008 - Wide
Australia is director Baz Luhrmann’s shot at making a romantic melodrama on an epic scale — a Gone With the Outback if you will. It’s as much a love letter to the landscape of his native land as it is a love story.
The story starts in 1939, when Lady Sarah Ashley arrives from England to find her philandering husband dead and his huge cattle ranch, Faraway Downs, in disarray. Authorities suspect that an Aboriginal elder, King George, is behind the killing and his grandson, a half-white boy named Nullah, tells her that cattle are being stolen by rival rancher “King” Carney (Bryan Brown). Carney has been trying to force her to sell Faraway Downs to him in order to give him a virtual beef monopoly and a very important deal with the Australian military. When her ranch manager. Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), who is in cahoots with Carney, threatens the boy, Lady Sarah fires him. She persuades the cattle drover (Hugh Jackman), who is simply called “Drover”, to help her drive the cattle to Darwin. The resulting cattle drive is just the start of their epic journey which culminates in the events surrounding the Japanese attack on Darwin in 1942.
Luhrmann bites off several big chews here. He’s got the Aussie version of The African Queen romance going on as the uptight Englishwoman butts heads and finally hearts with the gruff and strong Aussie cowboy. He has the sweeping scenery and epic vistas of Australia acting as a background to the moustache-twirling evil rancher shenanigans of “King” Carney and his posse as they try to thwart Lady Sarah’s cattle drive. He examines the now-condemned government policy of removing half-Aboriginal children (the “Stolen Generations”) from their families, a practice that went on until the 1970s. And he ends the film with a Japanese attack on Darwin. With so many threads, it’s no wonder that Australia’s running time clocks in at two hours and forty-five minutes.
Luhrmann, best known in North America for films like Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge, is known for his visual stylings. If Australia was simply one grand travel ad (and Tourism Australia is doing several campaigns tied-in with the film), then Luhrmann would have done his job. He showcases the grand landscape and barren outback like it was the lead character. But that’s also one of the film’s biggest problems. One of the most interesting characters is the scenery. Nicole Kidman gets the stuck-up but determined attitude just right, though sometimes in close-ups her face struggles to show emotions, a side-effect perhaps of her rumoured use of Botox. Hugh Jackman has shown us in X-Men that he can play tough and muscular, but he needs his romantic side here as well, and though women in the audience may swoon for his looks, the chemistry between his character and Kidman’s must have evaporated in the outback. Fellow Aussie Bryan Brown is perfectly crusty and villainous as the rancher who sets out to destroy Lady Sarah. The real star of the film, perhaps, is young Brandon Walters, who plays Nullah, the half-Aboriginal boy who captures the hearts of Lady Sarah and even Drover. His character has a wisdom beyond his years.
In taking on so much, Australia is sort of like a cinematic jack of all trades but master of none. Visually it’s stunning but sometimes, even in 165 minutes, the story does not have much depth. With so many themes to explore, perhaps Australia would have worked better if it was a mini-series, like the other sweeping Australian story The Thorn Birds.