Okay, I admit that Baz Luhrmann’s sweeping epic Australia would have scored high marks from me for Hugh Jackman’s oft-shown physique alone. Fortunately, it has a lot more going for it and a lot more restraint than another Luhrmann film I loathe. Australia is a rousing but overlong classic that evokes films like Titanic, The African Queen and any of a number of old westerns I could probably name if I could stand the genre.
Of course, Australia doesn’t take place in the Old West – It takes place in pre-WWII Australia in sumptuously filmed vistas. Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, an at-first fussy British noblewoman who comes Down Under to take care of and sell her husband’s cattle ranch. She is immediately offended by a man known only as the Drover (Jackman), the kind of gruff but stunning man’s man whom no one in their right mind could resist.
However, upon finding that her husband has been murdered and his ranch sabotaged, she needs the Drover’s help. She also becomes fiercely protective of a young Aboriginal boy named Nullah (the remarkable 12 year-old Brandon Walters), who, because of his mixed heritage, is threatened with becoming a virtual slave if caught. Many children like him were taken from their Aboriginal families forcibly and put into service for white families, gaining their own name, “the Stolen Generations”.
Of course, as WWII loomed, the city of Darwin (near to the cattle ranches of Lady Ashley and King Carney, the reining cattle baron played by Bryan Brown) became a vital base and target for the Japanese. We’re told at the outset that it was bombed just like Pearl Harbor, so the mystery is who ends up there and what becomes of them.
Luhrmann starts the film off with a typically heightened and humorous tone, pitting Kidman against the elements. Once the story is established, however, Australia becomes a serious-minded romantic drama that holds no surprises whatsoever. How you enjoy the film depends on how disappointed you are in that revelation.
I enjoyed Australia thoroughly, and marveled at thrilling set pieces such as a cattle stampede set on a vast precipice and the bombing of Darwin. Kidman and Jackman are both so exquisite looking and charismatic, I was not disappointed, and rather enjoyed the comfort of the film’s familiarity. I’ve always dreamed of going to Australia. After seeing Luhrmann’s version, I’m even more determined than ever — as long as I can find a similar “Drover” to give me the lay of the land!
UPDATE: Australia is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.