In Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, a prim and proper aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) inherits a cattle ranch and must work with an Aussie cowboy, known as the Drover (Hugh Jackman), to keep her business from being overtaken by corrupt rivals. In a later scene, when the two leads start to inevitably fall in love with one another, the camera frames them in a way that grandly suggests we’re watching Gone With the Wind, only with kangaroos. This isn’t a subtle film, but that’s not what you should expect from Luhrmann, whose past works—Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!—are wild infusions of pop culture and in-your-face filmmaking. If John Ford were Australian and smoked a lot of peyote, he would have made a film like this one: a huge, audacious, messy and sometimes brilliant Aussie western.
Kidman (older but still gorgeous and captivating) and Jackman (commanding as ever) give charisma-fueled, full-blown movie star performances. It’s nice to see great Australian actors, like Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, in supporting roles. The opening, in which Australian history, character exposition and a bar fight occur simultaneously, isn’t promising. Also, the narration doesn’t work and, like Moulin Rouge!, it takes a while before you care about the people on the screen (though the widescreen cinematography, which is always astounding, won me over immediately).
Around the time Kidman recreates The Wizard of Oz for a mourning aborigine boy (it’s a charming scene), the movie started growing on me.
The lavish set pieces that mark the film’s sprawling second act (involving a huge cattle run) are downright awesome. The film unashamedly embraces Hollywood movie conventions while at the same time staying true to Luhrmann’s quirky vision and Aussie roots.
If you combine an offbeat director with a massive production involving a history lesson, Hollywood throwbacks, unabashed romanticism, WWII melodrama, aborigine mysticism, musical interludes and the kitchen sink, this is what you get. Yes, it is flawed, but the only scene that really doesn’t work is the familiar climactic showdown (it’s too Hollywood, even for this movie).
Overall, this is the kind of film you walk out of saying, “they don’t make’em like this anymore.” And forget waiting for DVD—a movie this impressive and entertaining needs to be seen on the big screen. MTW