The movies sorely miss David Lean. Whenever someone with a lot of money to revive the kind of sprawling romantic and/or war epics that Lean excelled in — Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai — actually tries it, we see how hard it is to get right.
Baz Luhrmann’s well-over-two-hour Australia isn’t as bad as the Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay dog Pearl Harbor, largely because it stars quality actors with legitimate romantic appeal, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. But it’s still a long way from Lean, because Luhrmann — like Bruckheimer and Bay — doesn’t have the right taste to do this kind of film right.
This isn’t the same as saying Luhrmann doesn’t have taste; Moulin Rouge, William Shakespeare’s Romeo Juliet and Strictly Ballroom show he has an energetic way with post-modern genre mash-ups, especially when they involve lots of music.
But Australia isn’t that, despite the painfully corny way Luhrmann tries to use “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from Wizard of Oz. What Australia has is tons of movie-referential pastiche without overriding vision: a bit of Red River, Giant, From Here to Eternity and Peter Weir’s Australian Aboriginal mysticism movies like The Last Wave.
It’s overstuffed with plotting, which makes for slow going. And after a full movie’s worth of being a 20th-century outback Western, Australia switches gears and becomes a tearjerker about lovers and families torn apart and children needing saving during Japan’s aerial bombardment of the city of Darwin, in northern Australia, in early 1942.
To his credit, Luhrmann wants to address the racism of Australia’s treatment of its native population, especially toward those with white blood who authorities for many years tried to remove from their Aboriginal families. But this explores that topic in a cursory way.
And while it does have beautiful cinematography on its side, the Australian outback looking expansively majestic, it features some horrendously fake, poorly edited digital effects, especially of a cattle stampede toward a canyon. How did this make it to the final release? Ice Age looks more realistic.
The story, by Luhrmann with help from Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan, begins with narration from a young, spirited Aboriginal youth named Nullah (Brandon Walters). He tells of how the prim Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) comes to northern Australia from England in 1939 to check on her husband and his cattle ranch. Turns out her husband has been murdered, allegedly by a native witch doctor. So she decides, Barbara Stanwyck-style, to tame the Wild West and make the ramshackle Faraway Downs a decent place to live.
The boy’s singsong narrative is annoying, more appropriate for Peter Pan, and way wrong for the film’s serious intentions. But then so too is the film’s entire start — almost cartoonishly comic as Drover (Jackman) first fist-fights with a tavern full of reprobates and then immediately starts quarreling with Lady Ashley, who has low opinions of the men she must meet amid the dusty environs of the ranch. (There is one funny scene when she admires a cute kangaroo from the cabin of Drover’s truck only for it to be shot by two men riding, well, shotgun.)
Luhrmann slows down the jokey tone as the primary story emerges — Drover, Lady Ashley (a good horse rider) and their motley crew of associates (including Nullah, who becomes her ward when authorities threaten him because he has a white father) try to take 2,000 cattle to Darwin ahead of the evil Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) who works on behalf of the powerful King Carney (Bryan Brown). Fletcher resorts to nefarious means to thwart them, including initiating a stampede.
Along the drive, Lady Ashley and Drover begin to become close, including a moment at a campfire that cuts through all the seen-this-before clichés and resonates with eroticism. Kidman’s breathy sexuality is enticing — she makes this character come alive — and the handsome Jackman is both rugged and tender, perfect for this role.
It’s unfortunate Luhrmann couldn’t have shorn some of the film’s endlessly intersecting subplots and ham-fisted melodrama and just given the two more time together to fall in love in this strange new land, which is probably what the potential audience for this film wants the most. But he just has to muck it up. Grade: C-
Opens Nov. 26. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.