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Review: Australia

Baz Luhrmann's Oz and ends
By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 25, 2008
2.5 2.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Australia

Australia | Directed by Baz Luhrmann | Written by Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, and Richard Flanagan | with Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, David Gulpilil, David Ngoombujarra, and Lillian Crombie | Twentieth Century Fox | 165 minutes
If the cows had just gotten on the boat, I'd have been satisfied. But that wasn't enough for Baz Luhrmann. He has at least another hour to go in his motley epic Australia, and we hadn't even made it to World War II yet. I guess Baz must have said to himself, the movie's named after a continent, there's got to be more to it than that. So bring on contrived plot complications and the Japanese Imperial Navy.

A pity, because had he showed some restraint, he might have made his best movie yet. Of course, if he'd showed some restraint, he wouldn't be Baz Luhrmann. At its best, Australia is an epic farce, like The Sundowners with CGI effects and the goofy tone of Luhrmann's own Strictly Ballroom. Or a cross between Red River and The Wizard of Oz.

Which is kind of what you'd expect from a screenwriting combination that includes Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean), Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), and Aussie novelist Richard Flanagan. Just don't take this film too seriously and it's a rollicking good time. Give it a little thought and the result is the endless catastrophe that is the last third.

The part I enjoyed starts out with the most engaging and animated performance from Nicole Kidman since To Die For (1995). Her Lady Sarah Ashley struts about in her jodhpurs with Kate Hepburn authority, plucky and proper and a bit absurd. Brewing war clouds be damned (it's 1939), she's heading Down Under to retrieve her dawdling husband from his cattle ranch, Faraway Downs. Once there she finds Lord Ashley with a spear in his back, the ranch near ruin, and ruthless cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) ready to buy it all up wholesale. Her only recourse is to drive a herd of cattle across the wastelands to the western port of Darwin. Alone.

Unless that mad dingo, "The Drover" (Hugh Jackman), will help her out. At home only on the Outback mingling with Aboriginals, the Drover despises the hoity-toity lady, and the feeling is mutual — though her expression when he pulls off his shirt suggests what direction this relationship will take. They come to an agreement and put together a misfit squad of riders that includes a lovable drunk (Jack Thompson), a matronly Aboriginal woman (Lillian Crombie), Drover's sidekick (David Ngoombujarra), and Nullah (the adorable Brandon Walters), a magical, mixed-race waif who does double duty as a voiceover narrator.

This is the kind of quest narrative that kept Peter Jackson busy for the 10 hours of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Luhrmann does it justice for a while with his rollicking sprawl of swooping camerawork, gorgeous desert landscapes, a loathsome villain (Neil Fletcher), stunning action sequences (the stampede toward the crevice is a winner), funny dialogue, a smoldering romance, and a not too treacly or intrusive sentimental subtext. Even the music — from Bach to Judy Garland — is perfectly attuned. The film is whirling into a coherent, compelling whole.

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