“Australia” a beautiful blunder from down under
Epic films, especially those with strong romantic inclinations, demand epic ambitions. But it is exactly the scope, grandeur, sweeping vistas, and unabashedly old-fashioned themes of such films that leave them totally exposed to the harsh dismissive of a post-modern audience.
Case in point: director Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” that only partly succeeds in mixing melodrama, comedy, and action within its historical context, with some aboriginal spirituality thrown in for good measure.
That’s not to say the film isn’t game entertainment-it is-overcoming choppy storytelling to ultimately prove that the sum of its flawed parts is still a more than worthwhile adventure.
In 1939, Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman) leaves the stuffy confines of English aristocracy to visit “Faraway Downs,” her northern Australia cattle ranch that has fallen into disarray since the mysterious death of her husband. Cutthroat businessman King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his scurrilous henchman Fletcher (David Wenham) aim to add the property to their vast holdings by any means necessary. Lady Ashley’s only hope is to convince hunky cowboy Drover (an abundantly credible Hugh Jackman) to lead a rag-tag bunch of servants and deliver a profitable herd of cattle across expansive stretches of unforgiving Outback to the port city of Darwin.
And that’s just the opening act.
The second half of the film depicts the little known truth of the Pearl Harbor-esque bombing by the Japanese air force of Australia’s northern coast and the subsequent firestorm leaving a group of native children in peril.
One can’t imagine a pair of Aussies more suited to the lead roles than Jackman and Kidman, and despite a narrative that feels as restless as its director (a tendency that nearly undermined Luhrmann’s otherwise brilliant “Moulin Rouge”) the pair ground the film every time it edges towards kitschy clunkiness.
A saving grace of the film is newcomer Brandon Walters who plays 11-year-old Nullah, a “creamy” (child of racially different parents) who is in constant threat of being picked up by the authorities as part of a decades-long Australian government “purification” program.
The action sequences, like most of the films’ important scenes, are effective but can’t be applauded without a disclaimer. The abundant use of CGI techniques have brought us to the point where what should be a heart-pounding scene where hundreds of cattle rush to the edge of a precipitous cliff instead never quite feels anything more than fabricated.
“Australia” should be appreciated, even admired, for working so hard to entertain. For much of its 165 minutes it does just that, but isn’t the magic of a great epic the transparent effort behind the majestic vision?
Critics didn’t much like 1992’s “Far and Away,” but the film’s similarly sweeping ambition was kept marvelously in check with solid plot development.
Nevertheless, “Australia” is likable and occasionally charming and Jackman in particular is an iconic, masculine calm in the midst of this tumultuous storm. Think of it as a “Twilight” for adults. Even with its faults, it should be seen so you can find out for yourself what all the hullabaloo is about.
Rated PG-13 Rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language.