Bent on achieving a mystical aura at every turn yet too rarely magical, Baz Luhrmann’s colorful, would-be epochal “Australia” is a bargain basement cross between “Out of Africa” (1985) and any number of cattle rustling Westerns. All that’s missing is Errol Flynn to aid the damsel in distress. So Hugh Jackman as Drover will just have to do.
In all fairness, the handsome lad does his iconic countryman proud. Of course Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, the noble lass in question, isn’t quick to recognize his worth. After all, socially she’s the bee’s knees. Whereas Drover is, well, a cattle drover, machismo and independent allure notwithstanding. It’s hackneyed theme #173.
It was perhaps done best by Hepburn and Bogart in “The African Queen” (1951). In that variation, the scalawag in search of approbation from Hepburn’s flower of British civility is Bogie’s Charlie Allnut, a Canadian. And just to put things in perspective, the romantic class struggle is fought to the backdrop of WWI.
Here the momentousness is provided by the impending approach of the Second World War. We are reminded in the opening credits that the same Japanese forces that bombed Pearl Harbor attacked Australia only a couple months thereafter. Thus history ominously waits in the wings. Meanwhile, cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown ) plots his attack.
Natch he means to snatch Faraway Downs, the ranch Lady Sarah Ashley has traveled from England to save. As one beef speculator says in summing up the mood, “It’s not a real war until someone is making a profit.” Tossed into this den of vultures and strange customs, it understandably takes our lady fair a while to get a lay of the land.
Still, at two hours and forty-five minutes one wonders how much time should be allotted between life-changing epiphanies. In any case, just a tad longer than it takes to say landed gentry, Sarah digs back into her DNA and finds the gumption and will to defend what is rightfully hers. The first move is to flush out a rat in her employ.
Only problem now is that anyone who fears King Carney isn’t about to come work for the Brit. Which means she has no way to get her cattle to market. Well, as anyone who has ever been in this position full well knows, your only recourse is to gather a ragtag group of fringe characters and likable losers.
Then, you must acquiesce to form an alliance with the previously shunned and sexually threatening iconoclast. That done, you acquire a sobriquet of affection for the motley horde’s use. Since Miss Streep in the aforementioned “Out of Africa” has already claimed Msabu, Kidman’s loyal retainers must settle for the less exotic Mrs. Boss.
Assembled to perform the improbable is an overweight female Aborigine, a drunken accountant (Jack Thompson) that could stand to lose a couple of pounds himself and the soulful little conscience of the movie, Nullah (Brandon Walters). A boy of white and Aboriginal parentage, he bears the stigma of being a “half-caste.”
Soon unofficially adopted by Sarah, Nullah in turn becomes our ladyship’s guide to the folkways and mores of the land down under. Note, it is the law that half-castes are to be shipped to camps where the “black is bred out of them.” Part cultural muckrake, part soap opera, the one-woman, egalitarian crusade that ensues constitutes the film’s subtext.
But if Lady Sarah, who comforts Nullah with snippets of song from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), becomes his fairy godmother, then King George (David Gulpilil), the Aboriginal fixture ubiquitously perched at each mountaintop, is his guardian angel. Albeit hokey, it’s nonetheless engaging that the old dude may know something of life that we don’t.
Hence, we summarily reject as poppycock the allegations about King George spread by Sarah’s ignobly dismissed station manager, Fletcher (David Wenham). Without going into all the gossipy details, suffice it to note that numerous covert relationships and the lust for power pile up to form the rest of the rambling scenario.
But oddly, in a curious reverse of the all too usual occurrence, whereas a promising premise starts off strong only to soon lose momentum, once all of “Australia’s” loose ends spool up, the tale tightens. The film takes on a new nature as war looms. And, in spite of the dallying exposition, it seems we’ve come to care about Lady Ashley and Co.
The spiritual angle also finally takes hold, especially Drover and Nullah’s running evocation that one’s “story” transcends money and power. But its greatest potential, the romance of the land itself, is unrealized. Less CGI and a more poetic insertion of real live scenery instead of needless plot iteration might have put “Australia” up and over.
“Australia,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation release directed by Baz Luhrmann and stars Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and Brandon Walters. Running time: 165 minutes
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