By Roger Moore
The movie pairs Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman against the backdrop of World War II.
Don’t let anyone keep you from “Australia.” It’s messy and overwrought. But ambition this grand is worth two hours and 40 minutes of Aussie scenery, history (fudged), romance and war.
It’s a corny, old-fashioned epic with the usual digital compromises, but a gorgeous picture with genuine, moist-eyed moments, most thanks to Nicole Kidman. And there aren’t many actors who look as at home on a horse as Hugh Jackman.
Director Baz Luhrmann’s dream project, years in the making, is a memory of his native land during World War II. An Aboriginal boy narrates the tale and shows us a hard land that hardened the people, the war “Down Under” and the racism Aborigines faced. Luhrmann tells of a love between a grizzled cattle “drover” and the tougher-than-she-looks British aristocrat who takes over her late husband’s ranch and helps the drover drive her cattle to market for the war effort.
Luhrmann starts with “Red River,” leaps to “Lawrence of Arabia,” visits the “Rabbit Proof Fence” by way of “The Wizard of Oz.” He was going for an Aussie “Gone With the Wind,” but actually sort of remade the classic 1946 Australian film “The Overlanders.”
It’s 1939, the British Commonwealth is going to war, and Lady Sarah Ashley has trekked to Australia to fetch her husband. He’s dead, and in an instant she finds herself in the middle of a second war, a cattle war. Bryan Brown is the cattle baron who wants to corner the market on meat for the military. Lady Ashley and her Faraway Downs are in the way. He has his ruthless right-hand man (David Wenham of “300”). But Lady Ashley has The Drover.
Jackman takes over the picture as a man’s man, master of his trade and catnip to the not-quite-grieving Lady Ashley. The cattle drive he leads has every clich in the book — a Chinese cook, a drunken accountant (Jack Thompson), and a stampede. But they still work.
Luhrmann reminds us that he did “Moulin Rouge” in giving this epic musical touches, and magical ones. Brandon Walters is Nullah, the “creamy” mixed-race Aboriginal boy who tells the tale, learns “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the harmonica and explains Aboriginal traditions.
Epics don’t look the way they used to, largely thanks to the digitization of things that used to be filmed the old-fashioned way — air raids and stampedes, for instance. But “Australia” has the best special effects of all — Australia itself, and Jackman, native son. If you’re saying lines like this, it doesn’t hurt to do them with that withering Wolverine scowl:
“I mix with dingoes, not duchesses.”