Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Brandon Walters
Director Baz Luhrmann's Australia is an aircraft carrier of a movie, a huge floating behemoth with things buzzing about in every direction. It's nearly three hours long. It's brassy and bullying. It's loud and lousy with excess. It's a silly comedy, a sweeping romance, a Down Under Western and a war flick. It's corny, obvious, manipulative and predictable. And damned if I didn't love it.
Australia answers the question of what you'd get if you cross bred Gone With the Wind, Rawhide, Lawrence of Arabia, Empire of the Sun, Walkabout, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Wizard of Oz. Obviously, you'd get a mutt of a movie — but one with very good genes. Australia is set in 1939 and is so old-fashioned in its objectives it feels as if it was made that year. It is big in every way. It addresses important issues, marches across vast landscapes, perches on the lip of a bottomless canyon, stands tiptoe on mountain peaks and reaches for the most wrenching emotions. It is so shamelessly melodramatic you scoff until you groan. And then it punches you in the heart.
Australia is the story of Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a British noblewoman who braves the storm clouds of World War II to travel Down Under to fetch her wayward husband, a wastrel and whoremonger hemorrhaging the family fortune on a failed cattle ranch about five days' drive from nowhere. Lady Ashley intends to twist her husband's ear, sell the dilapidated Faraway Downs estate and get whatever she can for the livestock. Of course, to accomplish this imposing feat, she'll have to resist the opposition of cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), who is trying to corner the market on beef and doesn't approve of a single cow sporting another brand.
Lord Ashley makes the helpful gesture of dying before Sarah arrives. That way she has free reign to wield her natural talents as Mrs. Boss. In that role, she quickly fires her husband's foreman, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) who is so uncomplicatedly evil it's unfortunate Luhrmann didn't outfit him with a mustache to twist. When Fletcher departs, he takes all the ranch hands with him. Now if Mrs. Boss is going to get her herd of 1,500 to market she's going to have to do it with two Aboriginal housekeepers, who just happen to be horsewomen extraordinaire, a Chinese cook to drive the grub wagon, and a drunken accountant (Jack Thompson, channeling Gabby Hayes/Andy Devine) so corpulent you want to notify the SPCA when he climbs on a horse. The only trail experience is provided by a nameless trail boss known only as The Drover (Hugh Jackman, whose impersonation of the Rowdy Yates Clint Eastwood is almost scary) and his trusty Aboriginal Tonto of unyielding loyalty and willing self-sacrifice. Oh yes, and she also has 7-year-old Nullah (Brandon Walters), a biracial child who is so adorable I hope he grows up to marry Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin and the two of them can institute world peace as a byproduct of their cuddly charm. Nullah provides the drive some needed oversight from his magical Aboriginal grandfather King George (David Gulpilil).
Before it exhausts 165 minutes, Sarah, The Drover and the unlikely wranglers have to meet the challenges of forbidding terrain as enhanced by Fletcher, who is forever popping up to stampede the cattle or poison watering holes. The photography in this section of the film is magnificent, reason alone to see the picture. It is climaxed by a thrilling sequence when the riders have to turn the panicked herd before it stampedes off a cliff. You'd think when the cattle drive ends successfully, as we know it will, in the port city of Darwin, that Sarah and Drover could consummate their simmering passion with a kiss behind the closing credits. But the picture still has an hour to run while Sarah and Drover deal with the continuing evil machinations of Carney and Fletcher, endure a devastating attack by the Japanese and find a way to protect Nullah from the disgraceful racist practice of taking mixed-race and Aboriginal children away from families and raising them in boarding schools, "where the black can be bred out of them."
Luhrmann allowed Kidman and Jackman to give performances as if in different movies. Kidman is so bad in the film's first half I felt sorry for her. But just as Nullah does on the cattle drive, young Mr. Walters steps in to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," save the film and send us home with full hearts. I can't really endorse a picture this clumsy, but I readily admit I was affected by it.