Who would have thought that in Australia the word “epic” apparently means not just long and extravagant but woozy and ultimately rather silly? Baz Luhrmann’s new film doesn’t look much like his “Moulin Rouge,” but in common with that film it takes Hollywood genre cliches and pumps them up to grandiose proportions.
In “Australia,” however, Luhrmann isn’t satisfied with taking on one genre. True, the first half is basically a Down Under western, sort of a version of a picture like William Wyler’s “The Big Country” that might have been called “The Bigger Country,” though it’s got plenty of “Red River” in it, too. British widow Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) arrives in 1939 to confront her husband over his supposed infidelity, only to find that he’s been killed and that she must take over his huge cattle ranch, Faraway, in the north of the continent. It’s lusted after by their neighbor “King” Carney (Bryan Brown), who dominates the beef business in Australia and has his dirty work done by villainous son-in-law-to-be Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). To save the place, Sarah enlists the help of the abrasive but magnetic Drover (Hugh Jackman) to drive her cattle across difficult terrain to the port city of Darwin, where she can not only sell the herd to the British army but, in doing so, break Carney’s monopoly on the business and save Faraway.
But the cattle drive is effectively finished at the halfway point, at which “Australia” turns into what’s essentially a war movie along the lines of “Pearl Harbor,” centered on the Japanese assault on Darwin in 1942.
Over the course of both halves, however, the movie is also a swooning romance between Sarah and Drover that aims for the ripe tone of a “Gone With the Wind.” And as if all that weren’t enough, it’s also a social consciousness tract, centering on Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-caste boy who’s the target of the government’s racist policy of rounding up such children and sending them to a religious compound on Mission Island offshore, where, as one bigot remarks, the “black” can be eradicated from them. Sarah becomes a surrogate mother to the lad after his mother is killed, shocking the sensibilities of the bigoted whites and earning the special animosity of Fletcher, who’s the boy’s father but detests all children of mixed blood. Nullah and his aboriginal shaman grandfather King George (David Gulpilil), who’s been falsely fingered for the murder of Sarah’s husband, represent the mystical, magical nature of native culture which Drover is an outcast for appreciating (indeed, we learn that he was once wed to an aboriginal woman, and his fellow riders include her brother), and which Sarah will come to embrace as well. (Compare to the 1970s American western’s emphasis on the mistreatment of Native Americans.)
You might well ask how these various threads could be comfortably fit into a single film, even one as long as this at 165 minutes. The answer, of course, is that they can’t. “Australia” is ridiculously overstuffed with plot, and to complete each of the stories it’s loaded down with big finishes (as I once noted about another film, this one has more climaxes than a lot of X-rated pictures). It’s also loaded with wildly over-the-top performances from all the major players, including not just Kidman (who overpoints everything) and Jackman (doing a combination of Clark Cable and John Wayne, presumably), but Brown and Wenham (so villainous that they should really be twirling moustaches), and Jack Thompson as the Ashley’s alcoholic bookkeeper. Ironically enough, the only real solace from the scenery-chewing comes from young Walters, whose natural, unforced quality gives Nullah considerable charm despite the implausibility of much that the script involves him in and the fact that his narration is at times difficult to understand.
Luhrmann obviously encouraged the highly theatrical acting to fit in with his typically flamboyant style, which isn’t as hyper as it was in “Rouge” or “Romeo & Juliet” but has the same brazenly operatic spirit. He plays everything at the highest possible pitch, a cinematic high-wire act in which cinematographer Mandy Walker happily assists, taking every advantage of the huge vistas the continent provides with her panoramic widescreen images (and going for “magical realism” in the shots featuring King George). But much of the effect is achieved through visual effects—a small army of firms and craftsmen are listed in the closing credits—and it must be admitted that they often don’t look realistic (a cattle stampede and the big assault on the Darwin harbor are only the most obvious examples). Of course, the artificiality was probably an intentional part of Luhrmann’s vision (after all, it’s practically his signature). But it sugarcoats everything in a way that reeks of homage rather than serious emotion. The virtually non-stop, blaring score by David Hirschfelder, which makes use of some classical motifs, adds to the exaggerated feel.
Some of the sumptuous “Australia” is extraordinary, but a great deal of it is kind of wacky. Luhrmann might have been aiming, Selznick-like, for a new “Gone With the Wind,” but his picture ends up feeling more like a second “Duel in the Sun.”