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Dustin Putman

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Australia  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, David Ngoombujarra, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, Jacek Koman, David Gulpilil, Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Spence, John Jarratt, Bill Hunter, Lillian Crombie, Yuen Wah, Essie Davis, Barry Otto, Arthur Dignam, Max Cullen, Sandy Gore.
2008 – 165 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and brief strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 20, 2008.
It has taken a long seven years for visionary filmmaker Baz Luhrmann to follow up 2001's transcendent musical "Moulin Rouge." The wait, alas, was in vain. Partially an ode to the place Luhrmann and actors Nicole Kidman (2007's "The Golden Compass") and Hugh Jackman (2008's "Deception") call home, and partially a shameless attempt at capturing the scope, adventure, romance and magic of 1939's "Gone with the Wind," "Australia" comes off as overbloated, mechanical and curiously impersonal. For Luhrmann, who has a reported $150-million budget riding on this two-and-three-quarters-hour epic, this is a major disappointment that works in spurts, but not as a whole. Even more regrettably, instead of starting out unevenly and gradually finding its footing, the film opens quite strongly and with remarkable promise, only to fall apart completely in the contrived, filled-to-bursting last hour.

The tone starts light and quirky, but eventually settles into a more conventional and belabored storytelling pattern where every event is punctuated by either a dramatic exclamation point or an anticlimactic question mark. Opening in September 1939, English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) packs up her belongings and heads Down Under to reunite with her philandering husband. When he is found dead, Sarah has no time to grieve. She promptly inherits massive ranch Faraway Downs, and endeavors to hold onto the place by hiring rugged cowboy Drover (Hugh Jackman) to help drive the cattle across the Northern Territory to sell to the military stationed in portside Darwin. Also along for the ride, among others, is young half-caste Aboriginal boy Nullah (Brandon Walter), newly orphaned and afraid of being caught and detained on Mission Island, where so-called "creamy" children are being sent. As Carney Cattle Company crooks King Carney (Bryan Brown) and Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) set out to thwart their trek, Sarah lets down her prim-and-proper guard and begins to fall for the more rough-and-tumble Drover. Their communion and subsequent falling-out, as well as Nullah's entrapment, coincide with the impending Japanese bombing of Darwin, two months after Pearl Harbor.

Scene for scene, shot for shot, "Australia" is one of the most visually rich motion pictures of the year. Compositions are meticulously and beautifully composed without feeling too stuffy, and the exteriors of the country's natural landscapes are every bit as vast, sweeping, and awe-inspiring as one might hope, like a fantasy world that's not. Suffice it to say, cinematographer Mandy Walker (2003's "Shattered Glass") has outdone herself. Her work, more than the majority of the cast members, is perhaps the real star of the film. It is these images, combined with Luhrmann's initial sense of mischief—Lady Sarah is taken with enchantment by a family of hopping kangaroos next to the truck she is riding in, only to be horrified when one of them is abruptly shot to death before her eyes—that give the viewer the impression that "Australia" will be more innovative and playful than the typical historical epic. That the film is charmingly narrated by Nullah, his Aborigine accent coming through loud and clear, extends one's hopes, and the quick but assured pacing keeps things bouncing along.

The Outback journey to bring the cattle to Darwin is the film's most airtight segment, and includes some of the strongest scenes. The inaugural romantic interaction between Sarah and Drover works up to a fiery pitch with just a simple moment stolen behind the trunk of a tree (it's one of their last moments of chemistry together), and a bravado action sequence where the characters feverishly try to guide a stampeding herd alongside the edges of a rocky cliff is utterly thrilling. The viewer settles in, expecting the events of the cattle drive to play out over most of the rest of the movie. Instead, all involved (excepting one human casualty) arrive in Darwin with nearly half the running time to spare. Following a small treasure of a scene where Nullah watches "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time, blackened charcoal rubbed over his face to hide his mixed race from the other audience members, things go downhill fast.

As the timeline speeds up to ridiculous levels—the bombing raid takes place in 1942, despite all that has come before it set in 1939—the plot stops developing naturally and forces upon the narrative a rapid-fire succession of conflicts and subplots that don't fit. Sarah's and Drover's love story is a complete dud, far too reminiscent to "Gone with the Wind" (the shots of them together in silhouette as the sun sets before them are so blatant they're laughable), and wildly inferior because their relationship is so shallow. These two characters are pushed together because the screenplay by Baz Luhrmann and Stuart Beattie demands one, and their awkward kisses, their pursed lips smushing together, are about as sexy (and convincing) as siblings smooching. Jumpy and hurriedly edited, the third act is the deal-breaker. The bombing of Darwin is much ado about nothing—it takes up maybe two minutes of screen time—and the convoluted depths that the picture sinks to thereafter, with characters thought to be dead turning up alive, and Drover daringly rescuing the Aboriginal children, and the villainous Fletcher posing a final threat, are crushing because so much of the first half was so very good. The less said about a cringe-inducing final line of dialogue once again harkening back to "The Wizard of Oz" (Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" also plays a major part in the proceedings), the better.

Nicole Kidman is bursting with energy and compassion as Lady Sarah Ashley, a woman whose snootiness when she arrives in Australia is soon dropped as she learns to loosen up, lets down her guard with Drover, and turns sympathetic to Nullah's plight. Her motherly bond to Nullah (who comes to call her "Mrs. Boss") is the heart of the film, not her romance with Drover. As Nullah, first-time performer Brandon Walters is an amazing find, his unforced sincerity and vulnerability consistently shining through. It is yet to be seen if Walters will ever act again, but for this singular role, he is unforgettable. Of the three leads, Hugh Jackman is an afterthought. He isn't bad by any means, but Kidman and Walters overshadow his work and the only thing left to remember about him is a scene where he pours a pitcher of water over his soapy bare chest and rippled abs. In supporting turns, Jack Thompson (2008's "Leatherheads") is warm and touching as Kipling Flynn, Sarah's lovable alcoholic accountant who agrees to help with the cattle drive, while David Wenham (2006's "300") is so one-dimensionally evil as central antagonist Neil Fletcher that he might as well have been named Snidely Whiplash.

"Australia" strives for a lot—there will be no mistaking its robust budget and ambition—but does not end up with nearly enough. As the story of two opposites who are really soul mates, the romance is as steamy as a wet fish. As a war drama, director Baz Luhrmann does not appear to be interested in the seriousness of WWII so much as he's interested in abusing the Darwin attack as background shading and a means of adding some excitement to the climax. Nullah's path toward self-acceptance is on a higher plane because it feels genuine and not like a photo copy of dozens of other movies. Were it not for the emotions riled up through Brandon Walters' sterling turn, "Australia" would be cold and strictly by-the-numbers. As it is, the film is a technical triumph in search of a heart that feels real.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman