From Wednesday’s Life section of The Oklahoman. 3 of 4 stars (plus a ”My First Film Editing” set for Baz Luhrmann and encouragement for audiences to cut back on liquids for three days in advance of seeing the movie.)
Vast “Australia” covers much ground
Director/producer/co-writer Baz Luhrmann’s long-awaited film “Australia” plays a bit like an Aussie version of “Gone with the Wind”: lushly beautiful, melodramatically epic and nearly as long as the Civil War.
OK, that last part is an exaggeration. But at a whopping two hours and 45 minutes, Luhrmann’s first film since 2001′s “Moulin Rouge!” would be so much more if it were a whole lot less.
The least he could have done is put an intermission in it, and “Australia” is old-fashioned enough to warrant one. Set during World War II in the wild but beautiful outback, which cinematographer Mandy Walker lovingly captures, it follows the adventures of uptight English Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) who stalks Down Under to fetch back her husband and force him to sell his Aussie cattle post, Faraway Downs.
When she arrives, her husband has been murdered, and the culprit seems obvious: Ranch foreman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), who when not abusing the Aboriginal staff has been secretly working with greedy cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) to seize Faraway Downs and corner the cattle market.
After firing Fletcher, Lady Ashley must drive her 1,500 cattle to the port town of Darwin, where she can sell them, if she wants to stay in business. She turns to dashingly untamed cowboy The Drover (Hugh Jackman) for help, despite an initial meeting that left them loathing one another.
“Australia” would just a visually stunning redux of “Red River” cattle drive action and “The African Queen” love/hate romance if not for the narrator, Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), a half Aborigine-half white boy. Nullah spends much of his time hiding out from the authorities who want to capture and exile him to Mission Island for forced assimilation.
Despite Walters’ annoying broken English delivery, his sparkling presence and over-arching plotline manages to hold together Luhrmann’s sprawling film, which crams in a stampede, a fancy dress ball, Aboriginal mysticism, the Japanese bombing of Darwin, a daring nighttime rescue mission, “Wizard of Oz” imagery and a campfire shower sequence starring Jackman’s perfect abs.
With that much ground to cover, the film’s tone veers wildly from over-the-top theatrics to deadly serious drama.
“Australia” offers an often engaging story with some amazing cinematic moments, but with a less self-indulgence on Luhrmann’s part, it could have achieved greatness.