Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown, Tony Barry, Essie Davis, Arthur Dignam, Sandy Gore, David Gulpilil, Jacek Koman, Ben Mendelsohn, David Ngoombujarra, Angus Pilakui, Bruce Spence, Jack Thompson, Wah Yuen, Kerry Walker, Matthew Whittet, Ursula Yovich
Written by: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan, based on a story by Baz Luhrmann
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language
Running Time: 165
Date: 11/18/2008

Australia (2008)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Down Under and Out

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Baz Luhrmann's Australia might once have started out, many years ago, as a 90-minute pop-Western about driving cattle and saving the farm. It might have been a film a little like the one opening this Thanksgiving weekend: bright and quick and exciting -- and lots of fun. But then perhaps he decided that that just wasn't enough, or at least it's not enough for anyone who wants to win a Best Director Oscar. So now, at the 90-minute mark, Australia more or less stops, transforms itself into a giant-sized World War II drama, complete with grayness, dropping bombs and angel choruses, and keeps going for another interminable hour.

Nicole Kidman stars as Lady Sarah Ashley, an upright society lady from London who knows how to canter on horseback through the park. She travels to the land Down Under to check up on her husband, who is running a cattle farm, though Sarah is sure that he's dallying with the local ladies. She arrives to find him dead and some bad guys ready to buy the farm cheap. But she learns that the farm is worth a great deal more than she has been led to believe and all she has to do is round up her herd, drive them to market and enjoy the profits.

Enter "the Drover" (Hugh Jackman), who has been hired to pick up Miss Ashley and transport her out to the farm. He's in the middle of a barroom brawl when she arrives, and some of her 19-odd bags and suitcases are destroyed in the fray. The two snipe and harangue at each other during the trip, and Ashley's big city ways are constantly undercut by the every-man-for-himself, live-off-the-land Drover. This type of bickering, comedy Western stuff was previously pulled off in such delightful films as Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and Rooster Cogburn (1975), and it works here, too. Kidman is very endearing, traipsing through the dust in her white high heels and attempting to herd cattle by brushing at them and "shoo"-ing them with a Marilyn Monroe-like coo.

Of course, they'll end up together, but soon they'll be torn apart -- by war! Luhrmann has thus far been a lightweight entertainer, and he has absolutely no idea how to handle the war section. He copies many of the images from other war films, including the muted colors, the explosions and rubble, the use of sweeping search lights and serious, on-the-verge-of-death music. Not to mention the heroine with her hair and makeup mussed. But they never add up to anything with a pulse or a rhythm. It has no ebb and flow; it's all flow. It reeks of Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor.

To hedge his bets even further, Luhrmann includes a young Half-Caste character, Nullah (Brandon Walters), of mixed white and Aboriginal blood. Authorities are forever trying to haul him away to prison camps for "education" purposes, and the childless Sarah comes to view him as a son. This was a real issue in Australian history, and it has been covered -- much better -- in films ranging from The Last Wave (1977) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) to Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). Luhrmann's goal with this character seems to amount to nothing more than earning cute-kid points as well as politically-responsible points. (We even get opening and closing title cards, filling us in on the politics.)

David Wenham (The Proposition) co-stars as the snaky villain, we get small appearances from Bryan Brown (F/X and F/X 2) and Bruce Spence, better known as the lanky Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior (1981). It's too bad that Luhrmann had to waste the all-encompassing title Australia on such a mixed mess; imagine what Peter Weir or someone else more talented could have done with it. We could have had something really representing the vibrant Aussie film industry.

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