Australia: Film Review

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann, Runtime: 165 minutes
Grade: B-

"I mix with dingos, not duchesses" -- The Drover, Australia

Australia, though not a Shakespearean reinvention or a musically-infused showpiece, is pure Baz Luhrmann on a majestic level, one with lavish visuals that aim to spruce up the classic '40s-style adventure for a modern age. And it succeeds, relishing in the blubbery theatrics and long, deep glances that have sort of become the fat that's been trimmed off of grand journey pictures to please a more direct and antsy audience. Luhrmann knows the classic, serial-like melodrama, but more importantly it's obvious that he savors the genre exactly the way it is. He wants to recreate his esteem with magnificence in each and every frame, all of which back his audience into a "love it or hate it" corner. If you're attracted to either the director's blossoming style or the flowing larger-than-life dramatics in Gone With the Wind or The African Queen, then Australia will strike a familiar, romantic chord.

Narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a mixed Aboriginal/white boy, it follows the fate of Faraway Downs, a cattle farm planted in the middle of pre WWI-era Australia. He witnesses the murder of his "boss", Lady Sarah Ashley's (Nicole Kidman) husband and the owner of Faraway Downs, in a "fated" killing from his grandfather King George (David Gulpilil) that sends the wheels in motion for drastic change and high adventure. Courting the then-unaware Lady Ashley to her husband's location is "The Drover" (Hugh Jackman), a rough-and-tumble bushman who gets his kicks by drinking in the "Territory" bar and defending his Aboriginal partners in colossal fistfights. As desperation kicks in and rival cattle baron King Carney presses on an army official in the port city of Darwin to buy the cattle for soldiers, Lady Ashley enlists The Drover, Nullah, and others to drive the livestock there as well to compete for the contract and clear out Faraway Downs' stock.

Australia's grand in scale. Hell, that's an understatement. From the forerunning moments in its trailer, it's obvious that it'll be a whopper of a picture; Luhrmann gives himself tons upon tons of brassy elements to work with, from stampedes and bar brawls to fiery World War II action. It's painted up to be massive, boldly mirroring two classic '39 pictures -- Gone With the Wind in bravado, The Wizard of Oz in themes and trademarks -- all slathered on top of eye-popping natural vistas and computer-generated feats of textile beauty. Watching the trailer, a mere two-minute montage, gives an overwhelming accurate depiction of what you'll be in for.

But there's lots -- and lots -- of this kind of Australia in Luhrmann's picture itself, as its considerable length is both a relentless ode to its influences and a deterrent to audiences who just want it to get to the point. Somehow, he carries Australia across two hours and forty-five minutes on a sumptuous and dusty cloud of sprawling vistas and ultra-saturated visuals, giving it an indelibly epic air. He aims to do two things with it: first and foremost, he wants to entertain the daylights out of his audience as he's done many times over with his other works, all the while giving a massive nod to John Huston. He may've earned his Oscars by remaking Moulin Rouge, but he goes above and beyond in lavishing his name by harnessing the likes of Treasures of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen for Australia's poise and unquenchable thirst for daring endeavors. It reaches a point, smack dab in the middle where its almost-ingrained rhythm should include an intermission, that we begin to wonder whether Luhrmann's merely orchestrating serial-type turns of events just to get a rise.

With enthralling entertainment that takes a "throwback" and turns it into a stretched piece of taffy, it doesn't matter as much that he's embellishing Australia to be a bloated version of its influences. It's pure, unconcentrated, sweep-'em-up classic entertainment with Luhrmann's signature spit-shine atop its undeniable old-school roots, and ceaselessly enjoyable for not being bashful about the fact. His spin on the genre can clearly be seen in the first moments of the film, especially in the editing style that looks back on the twitchy moments at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, but he calms down as the dreamy sumptuousness goes on autopilot. The way Luhrmann gathers together his aesthetic achievements isn't as effortless to endure for prolonged periods of time as it should be, creating so much activity and bustling about in this sprawling epic to, in essence, exhaust its audience with all its rapturous design.

Australia keeps pace with the non-stop activity, however, due in large part to the natural charisma exuding from Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, both of which seem custom built to work with Luhrmann's buzzing style of directing. At one point, the framework of Australia was largely uncertain -- with Russell Crowe's name attached to the project, along with an ambiguity as to whether it was to be a musical or not. Some were almost itching to see Gladiator on Broadway, but instead they receive a (largely) music-less slice of Saturday charm with Hugh Jackman stepping in for Crowe and turning "The Drover" into exactly what he needed to be for the story's rhythm to work. He's manly enough to get the Aussie electric charm rolling, while tapping hard into Humphrey Bogart's visage from Huston's "exterior" films -- with maybe, just maybe, a taste of Sam Spade later on.

It's a picture that's largely about Jackman's Drover vs. Kidman's Ashley, then Ashley/Drover versus the world, so it takes both of them to work much like it took Bogie and Katherine Hepburn to make Queen or Tim Holt to complete Sierra Madre. Kidman completes the pairing surprisingly well; she, taking a fistful of her Moulin Rouge demeanor and adding a dash of her role in Far and Away, poises with just the right amount of hoity-toity bite to sell her Outback-ification throughout the drive. She gives the right tastes of civility and romance to appeal to the rugged Drover, all without seeming like a too-easily sold transition.

While the two leads bicker 'n swoon in an archetypal war of words and upstaging huffs-and-puffs, they use the intricate production design and Mandy Walker cinematography as a stage for their theatrical billowing. The Queensland-based location is a feast for the eyes from start to finish offering, at the very least an attractive montage of visuals to gawk over while getting wrapped up with the two leads. It's especially daunting to behold once the cattle drive approaches the beautiful plateaus and dusty flats near Australia's most gripping sequence, one that'll dig into Western lover's hearts with its orchestration. It's an undeniable triumph of style over substance, but it's also an evident victory of filmmaking as artistic harking to a simpler age of cinema.

On the whole, Australia gathers its two almost caricature-style leads together with Baz Luhrmann's unyielding love for classic romance and transforms them into quite the "event" film against the sprawling visuals -- hit-and-miss in that right and easily a half-hour or so too long, but still delightful while spilling over its own excess. Appreciation for it will largely depend on prior experiences with the director's work and the amount of pure-blooded escapades into '40s and '50s throwback adventure that you can stomach, one-lined romanticism and all. It shouldn't be quite like that, as Nullah's delightful story ought to be a wide-stretching delicacy for the masses than a constricted success. Yet there's something undeniably magical about Australia, whether it's the dust that it kicks up from those classic influences or the chemistry between all parties involved. It's also modestly affable and wraps up about as neatly as you can imagine, which makes Luhrmann's homage one worth seeing even if his style hasn't tickled your fancy before.


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