"Australia," which arrives in the wake of much gossip about a troubled production, a disastrously swollen budget and multiple endings, doesn't wink as often as it genuflects toward its massive subject and old-school Hollywood schmaltz. A wildly ambitious, luridly indulgent spectacle of romance, action, melodrama and historic revisionism, "Australia" is windy, overblown, utterly preposterous and insanely entertaining.
Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) is being driven across Faraway Downs by one of her husband's "trusted men," a mysterious, cynical cattle hand simply named the Drover (Hugh Jackman). When she arrives at her husband's battered farmhouse near Darwin, Lady Sarah discovers that he has been killed; what's more, as a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) informs her, the cattle baron next door has been stealing her "fat cheeky cows." Lady Sarah, who came to Australia to coax her husband back to Britain, decides to stay and drive her best cattle to Darwin, where they can be sold to the military.
The first half of "Australia" is taken up with setting up and staging the cattle drive. This is when Lady Sarah and the Drover embark on what may or may not be their doomed romance, against the spectacular backdrop of Australia's most breathtaking scenery. Once in Darwin, the story shifts to a military action thriller, the climax of which is based on the real-life bombing of Darwin by Japanese forces in 1942.
Kidman strides through "Australia" with prim, pencil-thin aplomb. But what's most fascinating about "Australia" is how director Baz Luhrmann subtly turns the tables and makes Jackman his leading lady. Photographed in all his bronzed, bare-chested glory or arriving for his Cinderella moment decked out in a dashing white dinner jacket, it's Jackman who enjoys the adoring gaze.
But even as he wraps his country in an adulatory glow, the filmmaker reserves the right to find fault, especially in the government's historic oppression of Australia's indigenous people.
As the spokesman for these dispossessed victims, Walters's Nullah emerges as the most touching and memorable character in "Australia," perhaps because he alone hasn't been plucked from Hollywood's stock supply. Although American viewers may get the sense of witnessing someone else's catharsis in "Australia's" stirring final moments, they will surely appreciate Luhrmann's most ambitious aim of all: to lay bare and heal his country's deepest primal wound.
--Ann Hornaday (Nov. 26, 2008)
Contains some violence, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language.