“Australia” is a double feature all by itself, a film that comes with its own built-in sequel. At 2 hours, 35 minutes, it has room for both a cattle drive movie and a war movie, with a romantic drama thrown into the mix to tie both parts together. With a story this expansive, it’s no wonder they named it after a continent. ¶ Yes, this is filmmaking in the old-fashioned epic style but only up to a point. When director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann says, “This film’s DNA comes from the same stock as ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Giant,’ but it has its own point of view,” he’s putting it mildly. ¶ For, more than anything, “Australia” is a postmodern blockbuster filtered through the very particular sensibility of Luhrmann, whose last film was the dizzying “Moulin Rouge!” A lover of artifice and excess who has little use for the old-school naturalism of previous epics, Luhrmann brings an unapologetically over-the-top and operatic aesthetic to the table. ¶ The director also wanted to make a deeply and self-consciously Australian film, to bend the norms of Hollywood filmmaking to the task of telling the story of his own country, his own way.
Luhrmann has not only cast Australian stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as his leads, he’s also used locally iconic actors Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson in key roles, and given one to Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, who starred in Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” nearly 40 years ago and here plays a tribal wizard named King George who can manipulate time and space.
Nod to Aborigines adds integrity
“Australia,” in fact, ends up paying major attention to Aboriginal rituals and culture in general and in particular to the plight of the Stolen Generations, the mixed-race and Aboriginal children who were removed from their families and raised in deracinated mission schools (as depicted in Phillip Noyce’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence”). This adroit tipping of the hat to another culture may sound like politically correct window dressing, but it actually gives “Australia” much of its integrity.
Keeping all these balls in the air is not easy, and, working from a script he co-wrote with a tag-team of writers (Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan), director Luhrmann doesn’t always succeed.
Too much is sometimes just too much, no matter what the philosophical underpinnings. But if you are willing to take the plunge and view things through Luhrmann’s prism, “Australia” does deliver the classic dramatic and romantic satisfactions its ambitious advertising campaign promises.
That ultimate success seems unlikely early on as “Australia” makes itself difficult to understand by throwing a ton of plot information at us with expressions and accents so authentically Aussie the specifics are at times hard to follow.
Before the romance, there’s the farce
Also unfortunate is Luhrmann’s decision to play the film’s first section as a broad slapstick farce that pitches action and performance to Keystone Kops level. The scene in which Kidman and Jackman’s characters meet is an unlikely brawl in which (don’t ask) dainty underthings end up pawed over by drooling ruffians on the streets of the port city of Darwin. It’s more tedious than it sounds.
Kidman plays British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley, who appears in northern Australia in 1939 to both track down a wayward husband and visit her property, a huge ranch called Faraway Downs, and decide whether to sell it to devious local cattle magnate King Carney (Brown).
Jackman plays the Drover, a character so iconic, so close to being a parody of masculinity, that no one ever refers to his real name.
Recruited to take Lady Sarah to Faraway Downs, the Drover’s regular job is to, well, drove, to “move cattle from A to B,” employment he enjoys because “no one hires me, no one fires me.” Naturally, these two get into ferocious arguments on the trip, and when the Drover insists, “I wouldn’t have it on with you if you were the only tart left in Australia,” their ultimate romance is, in effect, guaranteed. It’s that kind of a picture.
Once at Faraway Downs, Lady Sarah, whose take-charge methods soon lead to the nickname Mrs. Boss, is informed by alcoholic bookkeeper Kipling Flynn (Thompson) that her station manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) has been cheating her. She also comes across young Nullah (completely charming newcomer Brandon Walters), the film’s narrator, a half-Aborigine, half-white child who is the grandson of King George and might also have a gift for what the film refers to as “the black fella magic.”
Soon enough, nothing will do but that a ragtag bunch of riders led by the Drover and Mrs. Boss must attempt to deliver 1,500 head of cattle to a waiting British ship in Darwin. There are bad guys lurking and terrible stampedes in the offing as well as the possibility that the cattle might “have to cross the Never Never,” a landscape even more forbidding than it sounds. As noted, it’s that kind of movie.
As movie unfolds, themes, tempos shift
Though dramatic events continue nonstop through to the end, “Australia” manages to calm down from its frenetic opening minutes as the nature of the story changes. Wearying slapstick gives way to old-fashioned melodrama and stars Kidman and Jackman sink smoothly into the kind of major star romance we’ve been waiting for.
And don’t forget about young Nullah, who has an intensifying series of crises of his own to deal with in the film’s second half. Through it all, he takes the song “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz,” which Mrs. Boss teaches him, to be a kind of personal anthem. It becomes “Australia’s” anthem as well, and its tribute to a place “where dreams that you dare to dream really do come true” seems especially fitting for this big dreaming film.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Playing: In general release