*** (out of 5)
November 26, 2008
Hugh Jackman as DROVER
Nicole Kidman as LADY SARAH ASHLEY
David Wenham as NEIL FLETCHER
Bryan Brown as KING CARNEY
Jack Thompson as KIPLING FLYNN
David Gulpilil as KING GEORGE
David Ngoombujarra as MAGARRI
Brandon Walters as NULLAH
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
BY KEVIN CARR
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One of the most buzzed about movies of this holiday season is Baz Luhrmann’s epic drama “Australia.” The buzz is both good and bad. On one hand, critics are eagerly awaiting the director’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated “Moulin Rouge!” On the other hand, there have been some frightful rumors about the post-production of this film, including a studio-mandated ending change and a last-minute editing session that took the film down to the wire.
Fortunately, the drama behind the release of this movie isn’t overshadowing the drama within the film itself. And while this isn’t “Titanic” in scope and appeal, it’s still a wonder to behold, at least visually.
The film tells the story of a widow named Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who inherits a failing cattle ranch in Australia at the dawn of World War II. After having a falling out with the man who has been running the ranch, she must convince a rugged cattle hand named Drover (Hugh Jackman) to help her drive her stock to Darwin so she can sell them and pay off her debts.
This brief synopsis barely scratches the surface of the plot and subplots of this film, but it’s the basic set-up. There’s a tumultuous love story between Sarah and Drover. There’s also significant subplot about a young boy of mixed white-Aboriginal descent who is trying to avoid being sent to a mission, which was the fate of many children of mixed blood, known as the Stolen Generation. There’s also the second half of the film, which deals with the Japanese bombing of Darwin, Australia during the escalation of World War II.
In fact, there are so many things happening in this film that it has a real problem keeping focus. Is it a western about a cattle drive? Is it a World War II flick? Is it a story to tell the plight of the Stolen Generation? (Incidentally, this Stolen Generation story was better told in the smaller 2002 film, “Rabbit Proof Fence.”) A die-hard fan of the film would say that it is about all of these things, but the casual viewer might get a little dizzy with how often the plot changes direction.
In some ways, it’s as if Luhrmann had a sequel in mind but didn’t think he’d ever get one green lit. So, he just mashed up a second story into the last hour of the movie. I won’t say that this doesn’t work, but it could have been handled with a little more finesse.
Some of the structural problems of this film could have resulted from some studio meddling and a dissatisfied director. Some parts are overedited, like a clunky montage that served as a bridge between the two parts of the film. Other parts could have been tightened.
And then there’s that ending that everyone was talking about during the final days of editing the film. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that it does come across a bit stilted. Yet, if Luhrmann had gone for the original rumored ending, I don’t think it would have played much better.
Like “Moulin Rouge!,” “Australia” has some breathtaking and innovative cinematography, particularly highlighting the landscape down under. It is mixed with some very false looking moments, which with its painted postcard look, seemed very deliberate. However, there are several scenes, in particular the stampede sequence, that had some pretty lousy optical effects that didn’t look deliberately fake… just fake.
However, even with all these warts, “Australia” is a pretty good film. The energetic score is brilliant, helping keep things moving through the slower moments. I liked the characters, and I liked the actors, even if it didn’t sweep me away. (Although I will concede that People Magazine had it right. Hugh Jackman may very well be the sexiest man alive. See if you don’t agree with me after the campfire scene.)