Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Rated PG.
Set in 1939, Australia carries all the baggage of an old-school epic. There’s the four-year gestation period, a swollen budget of US$120 million, and a running time that clocks in at a whopping two hours and 45 minutes. Director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) is aiming for an outback version of Gone With the Wind. But with Luhrmann and three other screenwriters tossing their collective offerings on the blockbuster barbie, there are plenty of nods to other vintage films.
The ambitious plot kicks off with the haughty Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) hiring a crusty wrangler (Hugh Jackman) to help save her struggling ranch from the local cattle baron (Bryan Brown). Luhrmann’s ham-fisted direction stops at nothing to manipulate our emotions. In a story that includes a marathon cattle drive and even a down under version of the bombing at Pearl Harbour, he’s obviously been influenced by everything from Red River to Tora! Tora! Tora! The budding romance between Kidman’s starchy aristocrat and Jackman’s cranky cowboy is clearly meant to suggest a somewhat friskier version of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.
On the plus side, the look of Australia is never less than breathtaking. Jackman’s assured performance serves as a welcome anchor for the jam-packed story line. And once an initially shaky Kidman finds her feet, about a third of the way through, there’s some pleasing chemistry between them. As the Aboriginal boy who narrates the film, young Brandon Walters is frequently engaging.
That said, there’s a lot that feels jarringly overdone here. With the possible exception of Jackman—who does his sly best to make us forget that Russell Crowe was Luhrmann’s first choice—none of the leads seems able to consistently match the calm majesty of the landscape.