AUSTRALIA followed seven years after whirlwind-style director Baz Luhrmann’s hit Moulin Rouge !, and like that romantic epic, this 2008 love offering to his home turf also stars Nicole Kidman, is risky, audacious and extravagantly colorful. Some music decorates it, and a measure of broad brawling and roistering. It’s not an all-singing musical tragicomedy like the earlier film, but an adventure drama (with romance) set in the early years of WW2.
1939. Brit aristocrat ‘Lady Sarah Ashley’ (Kidman) inherits her murdered husband’s remote Northern Australian cattle estate and finds herself in bitter competition with rivals wanting to supply beef for the army. Wary help comes from ‘Drover’ (Hugh Jackman), ostracized by the racist society for his relations with aboriginals, and a local mixed-race boy ‘Nullah’ (Brandon Walters) who has to hide from being stolen by authorities to be raised in “proper Christian manner” (hurl). A monumental cattle drive is the centerpiece, followed by a climactic 1942 Japanese air raid that devastates Darwin.
Along with directing and co-producing (it cost $130,000,000), Luhrmann conceived the story, then co-wrote the script with a heavyweight team: Ronald Harwood, Stuart Beattie and Richard Flanagan. Maybe too many cooks brewing here, as the unwieldy saga switches gears roughly between farce, tragedy, rumination, magic, social comment and spectacle—and at 165 minutes takes an Outback Walkabout long time to do it all. The coming-miles-away sentimental last act has more false hanky-summoning did she?/will they? finishes than The Return Of The King. The script is just not very good. Visually, though, it’s frequently a dazzler.
Kidman (moderate mode, not her best work) and Jackman (criminally handsome, but those beefcake shots really are as gratuitous as they get) are okay, and the cast is loaded up with Oz talents: David Wenham, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Ray Barrett (his last film: let’s hoist one for Don’s Party !) Everyone plays it big and lusty, with plenty of wild horsemanship and rowdy byplay, the “blackfellas” glowing dignity in the face of indignity, the white villainy black as coal.
As photographed by Mandy Walker, it looks sensational, a color-drenched sweep over awesome vistas (and a ton of CGI enhancement), with shooting done in Bowen (Queensland) Kununurra (Western Australia) and Darwin (Northern Territory). Despite all the expense and planning, that gorgeous camerawork, obvious but entertaining CGI and the look achieved by Catherine Martin’s production design and costumes, the movies continuity and accuracy smudges are rife with dozens of goofs. The Japanese air raid is augmented by kipping a few shots from Tora Tora! Tora! (ya can’t fool me, I went to Zero-spotting school a long time back): the aftermath carnage is well-designed.
11-year-old Walters is a charmer to watch and does well, although his incessant chattering–and narration—gets overdone. As for Kidman, she later remarked ” “I can’t look at this movie and be proud of what I’ve done. It’s just impossible for me to connect to it emotionally at all”. Normally I’m all-for her work, but this felt a bit stiff, ala Cold Mountain. She did enjoy making the film, however.
With David Nagoombujarra, Wah Yuen, Barry Otto, Ursula Yovich, Jacek Koman, Tony Barry. Oscar-nominated for Costume Design. Reviews went from complimentary to scathing. A predictable big hit in Australia, its worldwide grosses came to $211,300,000, not enough to recoup the outlay. Well worth a watch, but its alternately anvil-heavy or cloying overkill leaves you more sapped than sated.