“Australia” Goes Big

Somewhere between the westerns of the 1960s and the melodramas of the 1930s lies Baz Luhrmann’s original vision of “Australia.” The outback native’s fourth film strays far from his sling-shot angles and obsession with close-ups to give a sweeping, epic view of both the breathtaking Aussie landscape and the epic romance he created for it.
Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a prim and proper model of British circumstance, who leaves her comfortable life to investigate her husband’s extended stay at their cattle ranch in northern Australia. There, she becomes aware of her husband’s death and her inheritance of almost 2,000 head of cattle on the only land not owned by a vicious beef-market monopoly.
She enlists the expertise of the rough-and-tumble Drover (Hugh Jackman), to help herd the cattle down to the wharf in the nearby city in time for a huge deal with the hungry military. As Australia’s rainy season comes, so does the tail-end of World War II, with the Japanese bombing of the continent splitting the pair and their adopted Aboriginal child Nullah apart, (played by adorable newcomer Brandon Walters and the film’s most genuine actor).
The story as a whole is a predictable one with key plot points seen miles away by anyone with a romance novel fix. The actors know this, with their characters dancing in a stereotypical line when appropriate. Kidman is amiable and sweet as the oh-so-proper English girl who finds her rough and unwomanly side in the saddle, while Jackman is comfortable and magnetic in a role likely envisioned for him by his female fans with the least amount of personal romantic satisfaction.
Some subplots are original and absorbing, but we’ve heard this tune before. As much as that is a bad thing for most films, the tired narrative shines here. Luhrmann’s “Australia” is like an old photo album, more nostalgic than cliché. Although you know what’s going to happen, you can’t help but be engrossed in the characters and their world.
Kidman and Jackman are noticeably enjoying themselves as they imitate and flatter film convention, so much so that watching them throw themselves head-first into the cheese makes us cringe less when we hear that same line of undying affection for the millionth time. The entire film falls together this way as the soaring and varied orchestral score and gorgeous zooms over cragged Australian canyons are more than enough to make you forget how CG those cows across the plains are.
However, knowing the film’s plot points may make you realize how long the movie takes to get to them. Like the classic romances it emulates, “Australia” nears the three-hour mark closer than most audience members will stand, especially with the many subplots; Nullah’s narrative tradition of the walkabout conflicting with his new mother’s protective wishes, the racist nature of the local church missions and their breeding of local Aboriginals for subservience; scenes taking up more than a fair share of what could have easily been edited into a director’s cut, despite their dramatic and heart-wrenching intentions.
When the film slows down from cattle wrangling or corrupted meat industry inter-politics, the scenes can drag on until a watch check, and it happens more than anyone with a “300”-sized attention span will be able to take. However, those that can weather the dry periods will be glad they did.
Like the continent of its namesake, “Australia” is a frontier of endless visual splendor with many stories scattered across its acres. The film is noticeably long, but when we’re galloping alongside 2,000 head of cattle, it feels like “Gone with the Wind” was released yesterday, and we’re still in the era of big stars, big sets and big stories.