A long, lumbering, and ultimately laughable Ozploitation epic, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia falls on all counts to do justice to its titular country as it turns in an embarrassingly crude apology. Devastatingly close in tone and structure to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, a fun, campy, Western ends halfway through this picture; then, out of nowhere, we’re bombarded by a war movie mixed with a preachy anti-racist polemic, in a movie that couldn’t possibly be more wrong-headedly stereotypical – not just of the Australian aboriginals it so desperately wants to treat with treacly affection, but also of the white Aussies, each a sweaty, thick-accented, hatred-spewing Paul Hogan variation.
Native Australian Luhrmann wanted to craft an Aussie Gone with the Wind here, and he has succeeded on some levels: the scope is certainly large enough, and the picture feels about as dated as 1939, with a cast of aboriginal servants filling in for Butterfly McQueen. But the story, well, story has never been Luhrmann´s strong suit, his previous pictures mostly musically-driven with manic energy; here, with little music outside of a couple a of nice didgeridoo moments and a ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow´ rendition that comes alongside of number of Wizard of Oz references, the excuse for a story (a short thrust and some splintered fragments) just sits there with little momentum. For nearly three hours.
Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat who travels to Australia to be with her husband on their ranch, Faraway Downs (read: Taraway Downs). Her husband, unfortunately, has been murdered by the time she arrives. Probably by that handlebar mustache-twirling baddie Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), previously employed by the husband, who Lady Ashley soon fires. Now, however, she needs someone to drive her cattle to Darwin, where a large military contract awaits, if she can get there before a deal is signed with local landowner King Carney (Bryan Brown). Enter brash, rugged, handsome cattle driver “Drover” (Hugh Jackman) who agrees to take the job and maybe treat this upper-class English lass to some local Australian hospitality. This is all narrated, atrociously, by half-white aboriginal Nullah (Brandon Walters), who the local authorities are trying to take away for vague reasons.
“Me Drive’m cattle,” says Nullah, who has apparently learned English from the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in 1930’s Western serials and Warner Bros. cartoons (it must be noted that none of the other aboriginal characters flaunt a dialect remotely similar to his.) Yeah, he drives´em cattle, in Australia´s one good scene: a mountainside stampede that sends a number of the creatures over the edge and ends with Nullah standing his ground between the cattle and the cliff.
But Nullah, Lady Ashley, and Drover manage to deliver the cattle, save the ranch, and even make good with the King Carney. “That was a manageable 165 minutes,” I thought, and maybe even enjoyable, before checking my watch. Nope – the film was barely half over. So what happens next? Why, the Japanese bomb Darwin, of course, while Fletcher makes some more trouble for the pseudo-family of Lady Ashley, Drover, and Nullah, the film culminating with our Snidely Whiplash stand-in attempting to shoot the boy – did I mention he was the boy´s father? – in cold blood, with no motivation whatsoever.
Performances are as broad as can be, characters are one-note; David Gulpilil is inexplicably wasted as mystical King George, Nullah´s grandfather.
The film often looks gorgeous, although the breathtaking outback landscapes are often intruded upon by unnecessary CGI.
A real chore to sit through, Australia is missing every last drop of the magic and manic energy that pervaded Luhrmann’s previous three films, Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet and Strictly Ballroom. It´s the biggest disappointment of 2008.