To save her late husbands Australian ranch from developers, icy Englishwoman Lady Sarah (Kidman) must travel cross-country with 1,500 cattle, a mixed-race child and the manly Drover (Jackman), whom she hates on sight
There’s a point about a hundred minutes into Baz Luhrmann’s sweeping love letter to his home country when — spoiler warning! — all obstacles have been overcome, couples have bickered, battled then fallen in love, and all that could have ended well, has. You might very well start stretching your legs and fiddling with your coat in anticipation of the end credits.
But then, just as you’ve got your arm through your left sleeve, it carries on. And on. And on, adding death and explosions and tragic misunderstandings, and all because Luhrmann is unashamedly striving to make an old-school epic. As if what went before, with its swooning romance, fistfights and luscious landscapes wasn’t epic enough.
But then, if history has taught us anything, it’s that Luhrmann and restraint are strange bedfellows. And Australia, the first (and, given the poor box office in the States, probably last) in the director’s planned trilogy of Big Movies is many things — heroically overblown, gloriously sweeping, unintentionally hilarious. But subtle it isn’t, leaving no Ayers Rock unturned in search of clunking cliché. There will be kangaroos. There will be mystical Aborigines. There will be boomerangs.
Like Moulin Rouge, Australia starts with an extended assault on the senses which introduces the players and plot, played at a frenetic pace that might seem out of place in a West End farce. Thank goodness, then, that things slow down over the next hour, allowing Luhrmann to show off his talent for stunning visuals (although the proliferation of CG backgrounds, given the natural scenery on offer, is baffling), to flex new action muscles with a thrilling cattle stampede, and to set in motion the beguiling African Queen-inspired romance between Kidman’s rapidly thawing cold fish and Jackman’s heart-of-gold, abs-of-steel tough guy, the Drover.
But then comes that final superfluous half-hour, with the sudden intrusion of World War II and the Japanese bombing of Darwin, and all momentum drains out of the picture, replaced by contrived conflict between the Drover and Sarah. And when the dust settles, we finish up… roughly where we were 30 minutes ago. Maybe you’d best be advised to slip out at the hundred-minute mark, after all.
Often beautiful but wildly inconsistent, Australia is none more Baz Luhrmann, which perhaps says it all. Worth a look on the big screen, though.