When the subject of Australia is as ambitious as the character of an ?entire country, and the filmmaker is as effusive as Down Under’s native son Baz Luhrmann, a ballsy Aussie cinematic razzle-Bazzle is to be expected. To be longed for, actually. Why else entrust the showman who conjured romantic delirium in Moulin Rouge! with the keys to a $130 million outback saga? Why else include stampeding cattle, aboriginal magic, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman smooching in a downpour, Judy Garland singing ”Over the Rainbow,” and costumes of such brink?of?World War II colonial loveliness as to make Vogue editors swoon? Only a cheeky bugger like Luhrmann would mix notions of the nation known as Oz with the fictional realm beloved by friends of Dorothy — and Toto, too.
Long before the second hour of Australia (which feels like the fifth), it’s clear that Luhrmann hasn’t found a satisfactory way to make a movie nearly as ballsy — or coherent — as he wants his creation to be. Missing the e ?in epic, the filmmaker has produced a labored pic, weighed down by the very artifice that is traditionally his specialty. And slogging on into the third hour (or is it the eighth?) of his antipodean attempt at Gone With the Wind — complete with themes of love, war, racism, and the joys of playing a harmonica — Luhrmann employs the brute strength one might expect of…maybe a drover.
What’s a drover? Crikey, glad you asked. In Australia, Hugh Jackman’s drover is a freelance cowboy who makes his living steering thousands of heads of cattle across hundreds of miles of outback. Jackman is such a hunky, brawling, independent example of his breed that the fella’s simply called…the Drover. Except when he’s addressed as Mr. Drover by the milk-pale aristocratic English lady Sarah Ashley, played by Kidman with a widening of eyes and puffing of lips to express exasperation.
Departing from useless, upper-class London dressed in amusingly inappropriate couture, Lady Sarah arrives at the end of the world to check on her errant husband and Faraway Downs, the cattle station he has been running. Soon, she finds him dead. It’s a mere hop, skip, and kangaroo jump of an hour or three before Lady Sarah herself whips Faraway Downs into shape and confronts the estate’s villainous operations manager (David Wenham), who secretly works for the greedy tycoon (Bryan Brown) who owns all the other cattle in the area. She becomes the protector of a half-aboriginal, half-white little boy named Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), whose grandfather, with his fiery eyes and flamingo-like, one-legged poses, is a tribal magic man called King George (David Gulpilil, famous since Walkabout). She absorbs into her long bones the mysterious wild power of the contradictory country she now calls home. And she stops calling the Drover ”mister,” at least after the two become an item. Alas, the Drover doesn’t shampoo Sarah’s hair, Out of Africa-style, or carry her up a sweeping staircase, Rhett-and-Scarlett-style. Pretending he’s Clark Gable rather than Wolverine, though, Jackman does eventually shave and don a white dinner jacket, while Kidman pretends she’s Vivien Leigh, and we pretend to believe we’re watching old-time stardom rather than a generic modern reproduction.
Like Gone With the Wind, Australia incorporates real history into its fiction. For decades, mixed-race children were forcibly taken from their families and trained in church- and government-sanctioned schools to become servants in white households (see Rabbit-Proof Fence) — and Nullah faces the same dangers. In the movie’s chaotic third hour, Darwin (the closest city to Faraway Downs) is attacked by a very movie-ish fleet of Japanese warplanes, just as the real Darwin suffered after Pearl Harbor. But Luhrmann is more self-consciously obsessed with cinematic conventions of big-scale productions — the evident artifices, the quaint re-creations — than about the specific, madly panoramic story he tells.
The winds of historical change howl. Dorothy sings of a land over the rainbow. And Luhrmann pulls levers to whip up tornados of complications, not so much a wizard as an overmatched man behind the curtain. C?