Plot: Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) inherits a sprawling ranch located in the Australian outback. In order to save the ranch, Ashley must bring in a massive herd of cattle, so that she can bid on an army contract. In order to complete this seemingly impossible task, she enlists the aid of The Drover (Hugh Jackman), a mysterious loner who works as a freelance cattle driver. Due to his close ties with the Aboriginal community, The Drover is an outcast, but sparks soon fly between the mismatched pair. Alas, Australia is a country at war, and the changing tide of history threatens to tear these two apart.
Review: AUSTRALIA is a film thats simply way too earnest for our cynical age. Its a throwback to a style of moviemaking that simply does not exist anymore. Its a grand, epic film, which seems like the relic of a bygone era. Obviously, Baz Luhrmann studied old time MGM epics closely, particularly GONE WITH THE WIND, to which this film owes a lot, particularly in the dynamic between the two leads.
Jackman in particular seems to be channeling Clark Gable for his turn as the rough hewn Drover. He plays the type of mans man that Gable specialized in during his prime years as the so-called King of Hollywood, and his barroom brawl introduction plays out exactly the way it would have in any Gable film from that era. Jackman deserves a lot of credit here, as hes one of the few actors out there that can make this type of role work in a modern film. Initially Russell Crowe was lined up to play the role, but Im not sure it would have worked with him in the role (which should not be taken as a dig against Crowe, who I consider one of the best actors in the biz- but he doesnt have the light touch required here).
Nicole Kidman also fares well as Lady Ashley, but that shouldnt really be a surprise, as she always delivers when shes paired with Luhrmann, who seems to really know how to play to her strengths. While I often find Kidman comes off as a little cold, and uptight, those qualities actually work quite well with this character, and her chemistry with Jackman is the best shes had with anyone since Ewan McGregor in MOULIN ROUGE!
While the film is being sold as a love story between Kidman & Jackmans characters, I was surprised to discover that in many ways, theyre supporting players. The true star of the show is young Brandon Walters as Nullah, a half caste Aboriginal boy that develops a strong bond with Kidmans character. By including this half caste character, director Luhrmann is able to properly depict the rampant racism that infected much of Australia throughout this era, which resulted in half caste children being taken away from their families and shipped off to Government run schools which aimed to make the children white. As a Canadian, this resonated strongly with me, as a similar program exited in my own country around this time which placed Native children in residential schools where they were shamefully mistreated. Its a credit to Luhrmann that he didnt gloss over this chapter in his countrys history. Young Walters is excellent in the role, which probably would have come off as horribly precocious in the hands of a lesser child actor.
I also really liked veteran Aussie player Jack Thompson as Kidmans alcoholic lawyer, who naturally ditches the booze and steps up in a big way when the chips are down. In the thirties and forties, a character actor named Thomas Mitchell specialized in these types of roles in films like STAGECOACH, GONE WITH THE WIND, LOST HORIZONS, and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Given Luhrmanns obvious old Hollywood influences, its nice touch that he included a character like this.
While, for the most part I enjoyed AUSTRALIA, it also had a number of flaws. The villain, played by David Wenham is a little too over the top for a film like this. Hes ridiculously evil (and spots the requisite pencil thin Snidely Whiplash moustache), and it would have been nice if he was made a little more three-dimensional. I also found that at a mighty 2 hours and 45 minutes, the film was overlong by at least a half hour. I know that Luhrmann wanted to make an epic, but the run time is really excessive for the story hes trying to tell, and similar to many films that run this length, the film also includes a few too many false endings for my taste (but to be fair, not nearly as many as there were in LOTR: RETURN OF THE KING). The pacing really lags between the cattle drive and the WW2 section of the film, and it would have been nice if this part of the film was tightened up a bit.
Despite the over length, and cartoonish villainy of Wenhams character, I still really enjoyed AUSTRALIA. While its not as good as Luhrmanns last two films (ROMEO+ JULLIET, & MOULIN ROUGE) its still a damn fine film- although I have no doubt that many critics will eviscerate it, due to its melodramatic tone. To them, I ask- whats wrong with a little melodrama? While its no GONE WITH THE WIND, its still a very entertaining throwback, and worth checking out (will probably make a great date film too).
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