Australia (20th Century Fox; PG-13)

film_australia_sm.jpgIt’s the scenery that unquestionably makes the strongest impression. It’s important to say this, because there’s something missing in the profundity department here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Well, one thing’s for sure: Director Baz Luhrmann ain’t no one-genre guy. His new film Australia oughta wreak havoc with the category labels at Blockbuster when it comes out on video, as this big ol’ epic qualifies as an adventure-drama-war-western-romance, with a little history, a little comedy, and a whole lotta old-fashioned Hollywood production values. Yep, Australia has it all: a beautiful heroine with something to prove (Nicole Kidman, portraying Lady Sarah Ashley, an aristocrat who must decide how to manage her vast property Down Under after her husband dies unexpectedly); a scruffy but well-intended cowboy known as The Drover (Hugh Jackman); a villain named Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, known to most as Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy); and a precocious but likable half-Aboriginal youngster named Nullah (Brandon Walters, a real find) who narrates much of the drama.

In its determination to be one whopping, audience-lassoing celluloid spectacular, Australia makes a few unfortunate sacrifices…but first let’s talk about what really works. Any movie named after a continent better show off said landmass, and in that respect, um, wow. Count on Mandy Walker being Oscar nommed for her cinematography; there’s a virtual feast of panoramic vistas of the vast Aussie landscape, unearthly rock formations, clear night skies filled with stars and, in one of the movie’s show-stopping scenes, a huge herd of cattle racing perilously toward the edge of a cliff when the evil Fletcher steers them astray (pun intended), trying to thwart Lady Ashley’s efforts to transport them to market in the northerly burgh of Darwin under the Drover-man’s guidance. The point is that, visually, there’s an endless amount of stuff to keep your eyes glued to the screen. Ladies will love Jackman’s charismatic combo of Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Crocodile Dundee (and he’s sans shirt in several scenes, girls!), and Kidman looks just fine as well—but it’s the scenery that unquestionably makes the strongest impression. It’s important to say this, because there’s something missing in the profundity department here.

The plot could sorta be summed up thusly: rich girl is tasked to take over hubby’s cattle ranch when he dies; girl meets local cowboy and immediately alienates him; girl must move cattle to big city to fulfill a contract with the Army (and in competition with rival beef exporter King Carney, a dour Bryan Brown); girl is helped by cute kid whose grandfather is a way-trad Aboriginal who does all sorts of heavily symbolic, framed-in-camera type stuff; girl and cowboy slowly fall in love; girl possibly loses boy; and war happens, scattering everyone to the four winds and an unknown fate. There’s a lot going on here, in other words; a short, one-sentence summary of this film would do it a disservice. But it aims to be huge, and to pull your heartstrings, and it’s just not entirely successful at this.

There’s a degree of artifice that begins to nag after awhile; you’re not often able to forget that you’re watching a movie, something the best epics generally do with ease. The two leads are playing types, and we’ve seen this reluctant romance thing done so many times that it’s harder to buy it here. Kidman and Jackman are both likable, though, and they share some fine, enjoyable scenes in the latter third or so of the movie. Walters steals a bunch of scenes—an impressive feat for a newcomer—but his narration can be cloying at times, and he’s in this thing so much, the movie depends on your taking to him readily. There’s a rather prominent use of The Wizard of Oz (the movie is set in 1939), both musically and metaphorically, and though this is hardly an original device (anyone remember David Lynch’s Wild at Heart?), how you feel about it may well determine the extent of the emotional payoff in some of the climactic scenes. Which, by the way, are accompanied by a shift in tone from that of the singular cattle mission at hand to all-out war, when Darwin is bombed by the Japanese. This is a bit of valuable history, since not all of us likely knew that the same enemy planes that attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 devastated this Australian port in the same manner.

At any rate, Luhrmann (the guy who gave us Moulin Rouge! and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet) and his three screenplay co-writers were lacking nothing in the ambition department here; this is old-fashioned epic Hollywood filmmaking, for sure. It serves up a heaping platter of consumables for the celluloid diner; the fact that some of it is overcooked, some of it is way too cheesy, and some of it doesn’t taste as exotic as your palate probably hoped doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fine, filling meal, prepared by a stylish and passionate chef whose aesthetic you can’t help but admire. | Kevin Renick

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