Australia is being marketed as the kind of old-fashioned romantic epic Hollywood rarely makes anymore, and after you've sat through it, you'll be thankful they don't.
It's not that the movie lacks ambition or showmanship: Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet), who co-wrote and directed the film, couldn't make a boring movie if he tried. Australia has no shortage of spectacular sights, be it a cattle drive in which the runaway herds are stampeding toward a cliff, the Japanese bombing of Darwin (which made Pearl Harbor look like a brush fire), or the impossibly blue eyes of Nicole Kidman, who is clearly a magical being, since she looks more beautiful with every movie she makes.
It's the whole of Australia that is the problem. This is a cockeyed, daft picture that aims to ground its Harlequin-ish romance between Sarah (Kidman), an upper-class Englishwoman, and Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rough-and-tumble cowboy, in a historical background detailing the country's racist assimilation policies, which included sequestering young Aborigines of mixed descent and teaching them the "proper" ways of the white world.
One such boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), plays a key role in the on-again, off-again affair between Sarah and Drover, who become his surrogate parents after the death of his mother (one of the film's few genuinely moving moments). The elements are all there for a stirring, passionate adventure, right down to a moustache-twirling baddie (David Wenham) who is so cartoonishly evil, it is shocking to discover that not only is he married, but that his wife is a good, noble woman instead of a Satan worshiper.
But the script, which Luhrmann co-wrote with Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), lacks the kind of pacing this sort of material requires. Australia moves in fits and starts - the film's middle third brings the story to a standstill - and Luhrmann never finds a consistent tone for his expansive (and expensive) epic.
At times, Australia plays like a comedy (a humorous high-point: Sarah's first glimpse of a kangaroo, which quickly devolves from delight to horror); in other moments, the movie comes off as a satire of bodice rippers ("I mix with dingos, not duchesses!" Drover snarls at the thought of shacking up with the dainty Sarah). There is also a recurring motif based on The Wizard of Oz intended to add a touch of whimsy to the already overloaded film.
Instead, it just makes Australia feel longer than it already is. The picture does succeed at exploring a period of the country's history that may not be familiar to Western audiences, and Luhrmann once again proves he is incapable of framing an uninteresting image. But you know something's amiss when you're in the middle of a movie that runs under three hours and you're tempted to whip out your cellphone and send friends a text message that reads "Send food."
Monday Nov. 24