Director Baz Luhrmann finds a canvas large enough to comfortably contain his odd romanticism in Australia, a lushly photographed adventure, satisfying to the point of swooning. The film opens in theaters Wednesday.
Mixing elements of Titanic, John Ford's Westerns and war flicks and The Wizard of Oz is something only a mad genius like Luhrmann would ever attempt, much less make work so successfully. Australia, like The Dark Knight, proves that popcorn entertainment can be artistic and fun.
Don't be surprised if both movies are among Oscar's top contenders for 2008.
Where to begin reviewing such an ambitious project as Australia? Likely the continent itself, not only a vast backdrop but also inspiration for a story in which anything rugged, romantic or supernatural can happen — and seldom in ways that viewers who live elsewhere expect. Luhrmann goes Down Under but seldom over the top, as he did in Moulin Rouge. He doesn't need to, with this landscape, culture and history.
Central to the plot is Australia's legacy of white colonists impregnating Aborigine women, then institutionalizing the children to, as a villain says: "breed the black out of them." In 1937, the risks for everyone are raised by the looming shadow of Japanese invaders.
Brave little Nullah (entrancing newcomer Brandon Walters) has escaped capture, living on the Faraway Downs cattle ranch in the Outback. The ranch is owned by the now-dead husband of British socialite Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who arrives in a stuffy huff. She finds a dilapidated place being shoved into foreclosure by cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), who'll secure a lucrative army contract to supply beef.
Betrayed by ranch hands, Sarah's only hope is driving 1,500 head of cattle to Darwin to offer Carney competition. Along for the drive — reluctantly at first — is Drover (Hugh Jackman), an ultimate cowboy fantasy played as an Aussie Indiana Jones. Drover's ragtag herders, including Sarah and Nullah, make a treacherous trek, featuring a breathtaking edge-of-cliff stampede. At every turn, they are sabotaged by Carney's henchmen.
The drive, Drover and Sarah's spiky attraction and Nullah's pull toward a traditional walkabout by his guru grandfather (David Gulpilil) make a good movie. But Luhrmann is only halfway to a very good one when the cows come home. Australia plumbs deeper into social divisions and heartbreak, and a wartime finale that almost makes you forget this began as a movie about cowboys.
Kidman and Jackman are a terrific ice-and-fire team, aware of Luhrmann's old-fashioned intentions and game to act them out. Their rum-fueled breakdown of defenses seems abrupt yet progresses so lovely that it isn't a problem. Practically any romance would be spectacular in these surroundings, exquisitely filmed (although a bit heavy on the slo-mo) by Mandy Walker, a certainty for awards consideration.
Jackman already has his prize: People magazine editors must have seen this movie — especially his bathing scene — before naming him the sexiest man alive.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com.