Movies Review: Big, Beautiful 'Australia'

In pre-World War II Australia, an English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) and a cattleman (Hugh Jackman) drive a herd across the landscape to save her ranch from a hostile takeover, experiencing the Japanese bombing of Darwin firsthand. Baz Luhrmann directs. Video by 20th Century Fox
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

There's a moment early in "Australia," Baz Luhrmann's florid homage to his home country, when the movie seems to be heading in an altogether unexpected direction. As the very proper Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) first arrives at her husband's cattle station in the vast Northern Territory in September 1939, she exclaims with delight when she spots her first kangaroo outside the truck window. Seconds later, the poor creature is shot, its carcass strapped onto a truck roof, a trickle of blood streaming down the windshield in front of Lady Sarah's appalled face.

In that brief, mordant scene, it seems that Luhrmann is tipping his hand, letting viewers know that, even though he's clearly here to celebrate Australia's most cherished symbols and national myths, he won't be afraid to lightheartedly puncture a few, too.

But it turns out that "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, even more worshipfully, toward old-school Hollywood schmaltz. A wildly ambitious, luridly indulgent spectacle of romance, action, melodrama and revisionism, "Australia" is windy, overblown, utterly preposterous and insanely entertaining.

As Lady Sarah is being driven across Faraway Downs, the enormous estate that her husband suspiciously prefers over their English mansion, she's in the care of one of his "trusted men," a mysterious, cynical cattle hand simply named the Drover (Hugh Jackman). When she arrives at the battered, once-grand farmhouse, Lady Sarah discovers that her husband has been shot dead; what's more, as a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) informs her, the cattle baron who owns the property next door to Faraway Downs has been stealing her "fat cheeky cows." Lady Sarah, who came to Australia to sell the ranch and coax her husband back to Britain, decides to stay, round up her best cattle and drive them to Darwin, where they can be sold to the military -- who themselves are increasingly skittish about a possible Japanese attack.

The first half of "Australia" is taken up with setting up and staging the cattle drive, which Lady Sarah undertakes with the Drover, Nullah, the boy's mother and grandmother, a Chinese cook and the ranch's drunken accountant. And it's during this sweeping, gorgeously photographed segment that Luhrmann stages "Australia's" most memorable set piece, a perilous cattle stampede that ends in a literal cliffhanger. What's more, this is when Lady Sarah and the Drover embark on what may or may not prove to be a doomed romance.

Once in Darwin, the story becomes a military action thriller, its climax based on the bombing of Darwin by Japanese forces in 1942. At this point it becomes clear that, despite its nominal subject, "Australia" is a movie not about Australia but rather about other movies. It starts out as "Giant," morphs into "Gone With the Wind," throws in a little "Indiana Jones" and winds up as "Pearl Harbor" in a cinematic crazy quilt of riffs, leitmotifs and references to everything from Saturday morning serials and John Ford epics to such CGI extravaganzas as "Titanic."

But any audience willing to appreciate "Australia" as an affectionate, even campy pastiche is in for an almost shamefully enjoyable ride, if only because Luhrmann so expertly accesses filmgoers' pleasure centers. As he already proved in the giddily imaginative "Moulin Rouge," Luhrmann is a filmmaker thoroughly at ease with mashing up genres. So leave it to him to make what might be the first and only action-adventure-western-romantic-World-War-II-drama. One could even add "musical," if one wanted to count Kidman's amusingly self-effacing rendition of "Over the Rainbow," in one of several heavy-handed references to "The Wizard of Oz." Somehow, the wheels don't come off, even when he resorts to sentimental overkill and painfully one-dimensional characters (the film's villain, a sneaky ranch manager named Fletcher, is missing only a waxed mustache to twirl).

Solemn and straight as a stick, Kidman strides through "Australia" with prim aplomb, wearing fantastic clothes and seeming to adjust the wattage of her blue eyes with f-stop precision to accommodate every close-up. But what's most fascinating about "Australia" is how Luhrmann subtly turns the tables and, at least structurally speaking, makes Jackman his leading lady. Whether he's being 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 usually reserved for female stars. And he rises to the occasion, exuding that ineluctable tincture of warmth, sex appeal and sheer talent that makes it possible for him to upstage not just Kidman but also an entire continent.

As for that title character, Australia itself has rarely looked more breathtakingly beautiful -- although considering the films that have already been made there ("Picnic at Hanging Rock," "My Brilliant Career," "Rabbit-Proof Fence," "The Proposition," to name just a few), it's hard to argue that it's ever looked bad. Bathed in the kind of burnished light most often reserved for Louis Vuitton ads, its landscape a sometimes hallucinogenic prism of lavender, copper and sanguinary splashes of red, the country is well served by Luhrmann's high style.

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. Alongside the conventional love story at "Australia's" core runs another tale, of the country's tragic and inhumane assimilation policy that tore "half-caste" children from their families and created what came to be known as "the Lost Generations."

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. And it's when Luhrmann is focusing on Nullah and his grandfather, a shaman called King George (David Gulpilil), that he takes "Australia" in its most aesthetically daring direction, and into the realm of magical realism. Although American viewers might 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, most primal wound.

Australia (165 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company