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Australia (2008)

  • Review: *** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brand Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, David Gulpilil, Ray Barrett, Tony Barry, Essie Davis, Arthur Dignam, Jacek Koman, Ben Mendelsohn
  • Director: Baz Luhrmann
  • Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan
  • Length: 165 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language.

Baz Luhrmann may very well be an acquired taste. His films have earned mixed reviews in the past yet been popular with audiences. And it may come down entirely to his style of direction which, going into Australia, you expect but aren't exactly prepared for.

The story centers around an Englishwoman (Nicole Kidman) who comes to Australia where she and her husband own a large cattle ranch. She is tired of it bringing in little to nothing and is sick of the fact that her husband seems to be spending all of his time there while neglecting the rest of his life. She arrives to discover he has been murdered and is about to sell the ranch to a greedy cattle baron (Bryan Brown) trying to monopolize the beef industry in Australia for a hungry British military long involved in World War II.

To help her keep the ranch, she enlists the aide of several aborigines previously employed by her husband, including a charming boy named Nullah (Brand Walters); his drunkard accountant Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson); and a group of freelance cattle drivers (called drovers there) led by charismatic Hugh Jackman who is simply known as capital "D" Drover.

Brown's performance as King Carney is a milder evil than that of his young protégé, and the potential heir to his fortune, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). Wenham wallows in his villainy and, despite being a rather important, good figure in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy, he does menacing rather well, even when he's stretching the line of credibility.

Nicole Kidman has been better in so many films that it's surprising her second teaming with Luhrmann has resulted in such a disappointment. Strict, domineering, but ultimately possessing a genuine heart, Kidman gives the kind of performance dozens of actresses could give, which brings little to nothing to the role. The opposite could be said of Jackman whose Drover is the epitome of the Old West macho man, which is clearly in line with Luhrmann's vision. The hard-around-the-edges mentality is slowly melted away to reveal a soft, compassionate man who, while desiring to be his own man and held back by no one, can't help but fall for this crass English woman as she worms her way into his life.

The real find of the film is Walters whose rich and bountiful smile more than makes up for some of the overly simplified dialogue he's forced to recite. His voice is pure and echoes long after the final frame. And that is thanks to the glorious score of David Hirschfelder who manages to craft classical musical styles with instruments such as the didgeridoo. The simply melody given to Nullah to sing is lovely and reminds me of the memorable refrain from Pan's Labyrinth.

The film also suffers from two other major issues. The first is the blending of visual effects with cinematography. Several early scenes in the film as well as some in the latter parts are either entirely created through digital effects or are painful blends between effects and natural cinematography. The color scheme, more a product of Art Director Catherine Martin (Luhrmann's wife and double Oscar winner for his Moulin Rouge), makes these scenes feel false and fantastical, not real like many of the gorgeous, truly natural shots, seen throughout the film.

The other issue is Luhrmann's direction and screenplay. I'm reminded of a scene in Francois Truffaut's Day for Night where a young Truffaut dreams back to his childhood where he snuck out at night to a local cinema and stole several pictures from a bulletin board on Citizen Kane. Much of his imagery and story is cribbed from some great romantic epics. Sometimes it works for the film, other times it makes for a messy time.

The opening scene alone, a clear homage to the silhouettes of Gone With the Wind is one of the many questionable choices that appear and then never show again, pushing them to the periphery of the film and making them seem like unwieldy choices. There are strong similarities between Australia and Gone With the Wind, but there are also easy comparisons to Out of Africa and the French foreign language film Indochine (both about women who take over ranches in difficult landscapes).

And once the romantic epics are fully represented, Luhrmann adds further references to the Western genre, including a perilous cliff's edge cattle stampede that is oddly reminiscent of the one in The Cowboys and likely other John Wayne films I haven't seen in a number of years. There's no harm in using imagery from classic films, but the way Luhrmann goes about it makes the film feel more like a melange of genres, which is sometimes frustrating.

If you already despise Luhrmann, this film will certainly confirm your suspicions. If you're a borderline admirer, like me, who sees some of the problems in his style that need to be corrected for this type of romantic epic to work, you can see room for improvement and may even enjoy much of the film, which I did (once I got past the establishing first 30 minutes). If you are a rabid Luhrmann fan, you might be disappointed. His characteristic style weaves in and out of the film and largely inhabits the early parts of the picture. When those distinctive touches disappear late in the picture, you may be finding yourself frustrated with the pacing and lack of visual flair, but may be ultimately rewarded by the traditional romantic finale.