Very sweeping. Very epic. And very long.
Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, "Moulin Rouge", "The Others"), an uptight English woman, arrives in Australia to convince her husband to sell their ranch and return home before World War II breaks out in the Pacific. Upon her arrival, she finds Drover (Hugh Jackman, "X-Men", "The Prestige") and takes an immediate dislike to the crude hired hand. But he is her transportation through the Outback and they set off on the arduous journey. Upon their arrival at the ranch, she finds her husband has been killed and she stands to lose everything unless she can drive her cattle to port, to fulfill an Army contract, before the evil cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown, "FX") can use his considerable resources to fulfill the contract. Her only choice is to ask Drover to help her out. They enlist the aid of the Aboriginal people who work the ranch, including Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half white Aboriginal boy. When Nullah's mother dies, Sarah cares for the boy and tries to protect him from the government forces intent on taking him away from his mother and Sarah. The trek is treacherous and made all the more difficult by Carney's right hand man, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, "300"). But the cattle make it to port and Sarah is able to fix up the ranch. Then World War II threatens their Eden and everyone must help out in the war effort.
Baz Luhrmann's films are, if nothing else, visual. And "Australia" doesn't disappoint in that regard. Luhrmann seems to have a fascination with picture books or pop-up books, because this influence continually reappears in his last few films. In "Moulin Rouge", he framed practically every image in deep reds and created 2-D frames for give the film a very stylized look, never allowing us to forget we were being transported into the director's inner mind, a journey many disliked. In "Australia", a fictionalized epic, he can't do this type of thing as much, but he certainly gets away with it more often than you might expect. The film begins with Nullah narrating the arrival of Lady Ashley and the beginning of the story, much like a parent might tell a bedtime story. But Nullah is relating a legend. He is Aboriginal and his people learn about their history and their way of life through recounting their legends. After a few minutes, he stops himself and we go backwards, to before her arrival, to get more of the details.
Luhrmann's style is very graphic and he seems less concerned with getting meaningful or authentic performances from his actors. Occasionally, he achieves this, but it almost seems to be an accident. In "Moulin Rouge", every performer appears to be trying to achieve the live action equivalent of a comic book character. Shouting, mugging, laughing too hard, every emotion is too broad and too big. But it works. And "Moulin Rouge" is one of my favorite films of all time. In "Australia", Luhrmann is going for something a bit more natural, and this works less well. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman topiline the cast, and they are both good, but unremarkable. They almost get lost in the epic and sweeping nature of the story.
As much as Luhrmann wants to present a slice (a very large slice) of the history of his birthplace, these theatrical flourishes tend to depreciate the actor's performances. At one point, the camera sweeps in on Bryan Brown who plays the villainous cattle baron King Carney, as he laughs maniacally and the gold filling in his tooth sparkles on cue. If Luhrmann were really interested in presenting a slice of history, or dare I say, an Oscar contender, he would have held these artistic flourishes (excesses?) in check.
Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a very uptight English woman who reluctantly travels to Australia to encourage her husband to sell the ranch they own and return home before World War II breaks out in the Pacific. Kidman's character is the typical uptight noble woman it almost seems every English woman is required to be. Why? Because she must transform before the end of the film. She will transform from the frigid, proper, uptight English woman and become less rigid, more romantic, and more open and all of this will be caused by "Australia". She will become a WOMAN in this strange, unusual land.
Story events lead her to become the de-facto mother for Nullah. Initially, she is very cool and aloof to him. When he experiences a personal tragedy, she approaches and crouches down and says "There. There" in the most impersonal way someone could. While this moment is necessary, I never really felt like Ashley and Nullah ever have a true bond. Yes, they cry when they are separated, they cry when they are reunited. They cry. And cry. But it doesn't always feel real.
Naturally, because Lady Ashley is so uptight, she will take to the Australian outback as naturally as a cat to water. Everything about the Outback will be a test for her. Can she open up and adapt? Or will she run back to England never to return? And if she dislikes the Outback, she will dislike Drover (Jackman) IMMENSELY. At least at first. Drover is the pure embodiment of everything the Out back is. Laid back. Rugged. Determined. Strong willed. And, of course, Jackman is very handsome, so Kidman's Ashley has to be drawn to him as well. But there will be, at first, clashes and fireworks.
And this is another problem with "Australia". It's so damn predictable. If you've ever seen a movie like "Gone With The Wind" or "Out of Africa", you will recognize most of "Australia". Apparently, Luhrmann shot a few alternative endings and let some test audiences determine which one was included in the film. What he chose, based on their reactions, was the most acceptable, most recognizable, more predictable ending offering no surprises or to help set the film apart.
Hugh Jackman is good as Drover, the rugged man of the Earth who becomes a reluctant ally to Lady Ashley. Initially, they unite to join forces against King Carney. Then, they unite to… well, unite.
Drover is a good old boy who 'works for no man' and feels very comfortable sleeping on the range, maybe more comfortable than in a bed. He gets in drunken brawls, he drives horses and cattle, and he rarely shaves and looks great riding a horse. And Lady Ashley doesn't know what to think of him.
At one point early on, Lady Ashley sits next to the fire on their initial trip to her ranch. Luhrmann then begins panning the camera across Jackman's broad, defined back as he soaps himself down. Soon, he reaches down for a bucket of water and douses it over himself. As the camera lingers over his torso, many women and gay men should thank Luhrmann for this piece of soft-core porn. Really, the camera moves in much the same way a Playboy video would capture a bunny washing a car. Oh, did I get that wet?
And naturally, Ashley does a double take and realizes she is staring wantonly at her hired hand. She quickly composes herself.
Throughout the film, Drover and Ashley struggle with the idea of a relationship and what that means to each of them, providing a little of the conflict in their relationship. But this isn't really the part of the story Luhrmann cares about telling, so it remains in the background.
If Luhrmann had confined his story to the tale of the cattle drive, the resulting film would be better. Just as predictable, but better. But it isn't enough for Luhrmann to simply tell the story of the love of these two disparate individuals. He has to tell an 'important' story, an 'epic' story. So, he sets it against both the backdrop of World War II and includes the story of the Lost Ones. Both of these stories are interesting, but seem to have been tacked on as after thoughts.
The better addition is the story of Nullah and what the Australian government did to all half-caste Aboriginals they could get their hands on. They uprooted these children, the product or sexual intercourse between a white man and an Aboriginal woman, and sent them to isolated areas, to be educated, to live together, to be held captive. Removed from their parents, the government was doing two things; trying to hide the evidence of affairs involving powerful white men and trying to make the children more acceptable to the community. And this happened for a shockingly long period of time.
Luhrmann thrusts us into the middle of this dramatic piece of Australia's history allowing us to experience it through Lady Ashley's eyes, through Nicole Kidman's performance.
Despite a few references throughout to the impending war, the last hour of "Australia" seems tacked on. There is a very clear division between two of the stories; when the cattle drive ends, we then pick up the threat of war. And because of this, the war sequence only serves to make the film seem longer than it already is.
And it's long.
Many people are making references to "Gone With The Wind" when they discuss "Australia" and I see the connection. They are very similar in scope, story, two strong leads, etc. And if you have seen "GWTW" or "Out of Africa", which I think is a better comparison, you will recognize most of "Australia" as you sit and watch it. And because Luhrmann is much more restrained with his over the top visual style, we are left watching a fairly predictable film.
The question for you is can you sit through two hours and forty-five minutes of a predictable film?