Director Baz Luhrmann has his distinctive signature stamped all over Australia. It comes as no surprise that the epic film is simultaneously exhilarating, provocative and—most of all—frustrating.
The film’s strengths and weaknesses are evident from the outset. Set in 1939, our first scene offers a visually sumptuous view of the Australian outback. Narration comes from the perspective of Nullah (Brandon Walters), a young boy of mixed Aboriginal-white parentage. Authorities are rounding up all Aborigine children and shipping them to a mission school, so that they can be forcibly assimilated into Eurocentric Christendom.
To evade them, Nullah hides in a giant wooden water reservoir at a cattle ranch, Faraway Downs. He espies a woman, who turns out to be Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a stuffy English aristocrat. Portending the film’s litany of disconcertingly awkward segues, the narrative then backtracks to depict Lady Sarah arriving in Australia on a mission to extract her wayward husband from provincial machinations at Faraway Downs. Upon arrival at the ranch, Lady Sarah discovers the corpse of her dead spouse, unceremoniously sprawled out on a dining room table.
Lady Sarah finds that the ranch’s foreman, Fletcher (David Wenham), has been secretly diverting cattle to a rival beef baron Carney (Bryan Brown). Despite the imminence of a cattle drive, she nevertheless fires the disloyal jackaroo and his underlings straight away. The villainous Carney offers to buy her out. She rebuffs the offer.
How can our heroine possibly drive her herd of cattle to the port city of Darwin, some 1,500 miles away? She persuades a reluctant hunk, Drover (Hugh Jackman), to head the formidable venture. Drover and his sidekick, Magarri (David Ngoombujarra), are joined by a motley band of inexperienced assistants: Nullah, several Aboriginal women, an Asian cook, an old rumpot, (Jack Thompson) and of course Lady Sarah herself, who reveals herself to be a skilled equestrienne.
The romantic setup invokes the clichéd template of attraction between two headstrong opposites. Drover is a rough-hewn Aussie, who craves life in the Outback. Lady Sarah is a polished, high-born Brit. Jackman is tremendous in his role, exhibiting a well-sculpted torso and exuding a macho brio. Alas, Kidman’s apathetic performance is problematic. Although her character supposedly undergoes a transition, her portrayal remains insufferably prissy throughout the film. As a result, it is difficult to warm up to her character and even more difficult to imagine how Drover would be drawn to her. Kidman and Jackman provide the film’s marquee appeal.
However, it is newcomer, Brandon Walters, 11-years old at the time of the filming, who provides a breakthrough performance. He has an extraordinary natural screen presence. His character’s maturation and relationship with his mystical grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil), proves far more resonant than the central romantic subplot.
As in other Luhrmann vehicles, Australia is stunning. Courtesy of cinematographer, Mandy Walker, the film’s shot construction and camera angles are visually intoxicating. The costume design and set design contribute to the film’s historical verisimilitude. One can easily be seduced by the production values of Australia.
However, as is often the case in Luhrmann’s vehicles, the narrative is a cluttered mess. Once again, he seems focused on the film’s visual motifs to the detriment of storytelling clarity. The screenplay ill-advisedly attempts to pack far too much into a single film. The subplot about the treatment of the Aborigines and the so-called Stolen Generation is eye opening, but deserves a film of its won. Australia is further subverted by its clumsy structure. The film seems ripe for a conclusion as it approaches the two-hour mark. Instead, Australia commences another major subplot, the impact of World War II on the country. The Japanese bombing raid of Darwin is breathtaking, but takes place after the viewer is likely enervated.
Australia is an undeniably gorgeous, bloated, and structurally disjointed extravaganza.
*** PG-13 (for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language) 165 minutes