Rating: 2 stars
Australia is all mythology, no movie. Its director, the extravagant Australian stylist Baz Luhrman (Moulin Rouge), simply has too many lofty ideas: He wants to make a film that captures the sprawling, rugged landscape and maverick spirit of his homeland. He wants to make a film that condemns the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people, the Aborigines. He wants to make a film that echoes classic American films—westerns for sure, but mostly Gone With the Wind and, curiously, The Wizard of Oz. Indeed, he wants to create nothing less than the Great Australian movie. He might’ve started with a better script.
Almost everything in Australia seems borrowed from other, better, sources, as if Luhrman thinks that presenting cinematic archetypes imbues his film with a kind of timelessness. It just makes his characters clichés.
We’ve got Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), the English aristocrat who arrives in Australia during World War II hoping to convince her husband to sell his cattle ranch. Instead, she finds her husband dead, murdered by the nefarious henchman of King Carney (Bryan Brown), an ambitious cattle baron. At first, Lady Ashley is prim, stiff, easily startled. She gets a ride to the ranch from Drover (Hugh Jackman), a strapping, hard-fighting, free-spirited, yet highly principled (natch) ranch hand. Fifteen minutes into the film, Drover is shirtless and sudsing up his enormous torso as Lady Ashley gazes at him from her tent with anxious lust. (At this point, I inadvertently giggled.)
Once at the ranch, Lady Ashley meets the beautiful, preternaturally brave and wise child Nullah (Brandon Walters). Nullah is what they call half-caste—meaning his mother is Aborigine and his father is white. This puts him at risk to be rounded up by the government and sent to a work camp. Lady Ashley is immediately transfixed by the child, but it isn’t until her massive personality transplant (luckily, this happens a few scenes later) that she truly feels maternal toward him.
Yup, faster than you can say “walkabout,” Lady Ashley goes from early Scarlett O’Hara to post-war Scarlett O’Hara. In no time, she’s atop a horse, herding cattle, fighting King Carney, and bedding Drover. It’s only a matter of scenes before she’s throwing back her first glass of rum and shouting, “Crikey!” (If the transformation seems a bit abrupt, remember, the film already clocks in at almost 3 hours—who has time for character development?).
Kidman and Jackman do the best they can with these limited roles, but they do little to elevate the material. (Kidman’s Botoxed-into-submission face and Jackman’s Wolverine-pumped physique also prove to be mild distractions.)
As for the film’s cinematic allusions, okay, I get the Gone With the Wind thing (war, hunks, spoiled women, sprawling land—it all checks out) but The Wizard of Oz references remain an enigma. Early on, Lady Ashley tells Nullah the story of The Wizard of Oz. In one of the film’s best scenes, she even haltingly sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to him. Nullah equates the Wizard to his shaman grandfather. But nothing about Nullah’s grandfather is really like the Wizard—he’s highly authentic, he represents the embodiment of an ancient culture that Drover, and eventually Lady Ashley, realize Nullah still needs to be connected to. There’s much talk of the ranch as home, but Australia isn’t about finding and losing home, it’s more of an homage to the motherland.
So I can only surmise that Luhrman relies heavily on The Wizard of Oz for two reasons. One, he loves the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (who doesn’t?) and finds it haunting and evocative. Two—and can it really be this shallow?—Oz is a nickname for Australia. In this case, Baz Luhrman is the real man behind the curtain.