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When a 155-minute film kicks off with a Star Wars crawl, it’s hard not to get the feeling that a vomit of divadom is sure to follow. That’s not quite the case with Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, which opens with some background on the treatment of the continent’s mixed Aboriginal children in the early 20th century before launching into a World War II–era adventure-romance-drama that is sure to be described as “sprawling,” “epic,” and “sweeping.”
Boy, is it sweeping. For a good chunk of the film, though, Luhrmann keeps you invested: The writer-director strenuously works to dazzle, enveloping you with wide-angle shots of dusty vistas, indigenous mystics, and the pretty star power of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as they herd cattle, overthrow a bad guy, save an endangered child, and fall in love. There’s a sense throughout that this movie, stuffed script and all, means something. So like a good student, you don’t fidget, and you may not even look at your watch. It’s art!
Only toward Australia’s heavy-handed end do you realize that no, it’s not art. It’s a bloated cheese-fest that will likely bomb at the box office, given that its central premise and target audience are both unclear.
Luhrmann’s late-chapter overuse of the script’s Wizard of Oz metaphor ultimately marks his first film since 2001’s Moulin Rouge! as a grand-scale misfire, though there are hints all along. The first half of the script, credited to Luhrmann and three others, nicely balances the earnestness of its narrator, a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian child named Nullah (Brandon Walters, a terrific find) with a playful tone that suggests this period piece isn’t going to take itself entirely seriously.
Most entertaining is Kidman’s Lady Sarah Ashley, an Englishwoman who travels to Australia to check on her cheating husband and his ranch investment. “Mrs. Boss,” as Nullah calls her, discovers that her fine clothes and impeccable posture don’t mesh well with the outback, nor with the “Drover” (Jackman), the gypsy-like cattle herder who’s tasked with welcoming her despite his near-outcast status for socializing with natives. When Sarah’s husband is murdered, however, and she learns that the evil King Carney (Bryan Brown) has been sabotaging his business, the lady becomes determined to save the ranch, save Nullah from being seized by the government, and save Drover from the tough-loner wall he’s built around his heart, as vexing as he may be—at least while his shirt is on.
Between Sarah the Fussbudget and Drover the Beatifically Lit, Heroically Scored Hunk, Australia’s setup has a fair amount of humor and scenes that border on intentional romantic-adventure parody. Kidman’s performance is especially deft, with Sarah’s prissy gestures and attempts to bond with Nullah, who works on the ranch, easily the best parts of the film. (Sarah’s half-assed yet utterly refined rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is comic genius.) Jackman’s main duties, meanwhile, are to be prickly and good-looking—essentially Wolverine on a horse. That their bickering will lead to love is no surprise.
When it does, however…that’s when Australia goes down under. Its Indiana Jones spirit turns mighty serious as subplots focus on the attempts of the Australian government to breed the native blood out of “creamies” such as Nullah, the question of whether Sarah can ever tame the Drover, and the breakout of war. Black magic is a prominent theme (Nullah’s grandfather is a witch doctor), with Aborigines pitted against white Australians—except, of course, when our white heroes put themselves in danger to save them. There’s lots of soaring strings and overemoting, but for a Luhrmann project, Australia’s visuals aren’t that impressive—dust is dust, though starry outback nights are lit with nearly Disney-grade etherealness. You’ll also get a bit tired of hearing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and references to Oz again and again. And when Sarah, after a tearful reunion, tells Drover, “Let’s go home” and he responds, “There’s no place like it,” well, it’s a big laugh in the wrong place.