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Australia

Epic Scope, Epic Sprawl

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

After a seven-year period in which one project, an Alexander the Great biopic, failed to materialize (Oliver Stoneís box office and critical failure pre-empted any other biopics on Alexander the Great), filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom) is back with Australia, a sprawling epic thatís part (Australian) Western, part wartime romance, with a superficial exploration of the so-called ďStolen Generations", half-white/half-aborigines who were forcibly taken from their parents and raised by Christian missionaries. Filmed at a reported cost of $130 million dollars on location and on soundstages, Australia is, if nothing else, always spectacular. When it comes to dramatic or emotional pull, however, the movie falls short of Luhrmannís ambitions.

From her home in England, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) receives word that her estranged husband, the owner of a cattle station in the Australian outback, Faraway Downs, refuses to sell the property and 1,500 head of cattle to his chief rival and cattle baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown). On her own initiative, Ashley decides to travel to Australia, convince her husband to sell the property and bring him to England. However, when she arrives at Faraway Downs, she learns of her husbandís death, apparently at the hands of a local aborigine, King George (David Gulpilil). At the rundown cattle station, Ashley quickly takes charge, clashing with her late husbandís foreman, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) and, eventually, becoming a surrogate mother to Nullah (Brandon Walters), Neilís mixed-race son (whom Neil refuses to acknowledge).

To make Faraway Downs profitable, Ashley must deliver the 1,500 head of cattle hundreds of miles away to Darwin, Australia, where the Australian military will take possession of the cattle. Desperate for help, she turns to Drover (Hugh Jackman), an experienced stockman and cattle driver she met who drove her to Faraway Downs from the coast. Carney, however, has a lucrative government contract dependent on his exclusive control over cattle delivery. Along with Nullah, the bookkeeper, Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), the cook, Sing Song (Wah Yuen), Magarri (David Ngoombujarra), Droverís best friend, and Bandy (Lillian Crombie), they set out for Darwin.

What starts out as a Red River-style cattle drive, complete with stampedes and natural and man-made disasters, gives way at the 90-minute mark to an old-school WWII romance, with Ashley, the epitome of English aristocracy, and Drover, the epitome of the working class Australian, clashing over their differences and social disapproval. Eventually even that romantic conflict gives way to WWII proper, with Ashley's newfound maternal instincts trained on Nullah and Drover asked to drive cattle for the government.

Luhrmann, working with three co-screenwriters, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan, obviously wanted to make an epic-style, if no less conventional, adventure-romance. What Luhrmann apparently couldnít decide, however, was whether he wanted to make one film or two (or a mini-series); whether he wanted the audience to take Australia as campy melodrama or straight drama; and whether he wanted to treat the issue of the ďStolen GenerationsĒ seriously or just use it as backdrop for his epic romance. Nullah and his fate are treated superficially, with racial prejudice as the main obstacle to his happiness.

Still, itís hard to argue with Luhrmannís eye for visual compositions. Luhrmann has few contemporary equals as a visual stylist. Surrounding himself with a talented cinematographer, Mandy Walker and production/costume designer, Catherine Martin (Luhrmannís wife) helps, of course. Luhrmann also deserves credit for reinvigorating and de-camping the theme song from The Wizard of Oz.

Unfortunately, the lack of an original storyline and the absence of deep, relatable characters make Australia a superficially engaging film thatíll be best remembered for its spectacular set pieces and visuals and, at least for some members of the audience, an ultra-tanned, white-toothed, super-fit Hugh Jackman washing off his torso by the light of a camp fire after a hard dayís work driving cattle.