Large-scale epic has its ups and downs
By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Baz Luhrmann
STARS Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman
During my entire career as a film reviewer, I've never walked out of a movie and never will, though of course I've been tempted on countless occasions. Given the promise of the love story-cum-historical epic-cum-adventure yarn Australia, I rather unexpectedly felt an urge to hoof it to my car during the torturous opening scenes of this big-budget spectacle. Director Baz Luhrmann's frenzied approach, which worked perfectly for the musical genre in Moulin Rouge! and for teen angst in Romeo & Juliet, is grotesquely out of place in these expository sequences (Luhrmann is talented, but he's no Howard Hawks), while Nicole Kidman, as the prim and trim Englishwoman newly arrived to this savage land, manages (for the first 20 minutes, at least) to turn in the worst performance of her career. After this migraine-inducing opening, the movie settles down (well, sort of) and begins to find its stride. Unfortunately, that stride is only occasionally graceful, resulting in a mishmash of a film marked by infuriating ups and downs.
As Sarah Ashley, who journeys to Australia and ends up trying to protect her late husband's cattle ranch from being taken over by rival businessman King Carney (a welcome Bryan Brown, little seen since his brief heyday during the 1980s), Kidman never fully immerses herself in the role too many actorly tics spoil the broth. As Drover, the hunky cattle driver who agrees to help Sarah in her quest to save the business, Hugh Jackman fares better, choosing to play most emotions close to the vest make that close to the (bare) chest and thereby emerging as an oasis of calm amidst so much rampant scenery-chewing. The worst culprit of overacting is David Wenham, whose dastardly henchman Fletcher ends up being perhaps the most risible movie villain since Billy Zane's Cal Hockley took shots at Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack Dawson as the Titanic sank into the chilly depths.
In between scenes of Nicole and Hugh gettin' sweaty and sequences involving the Japanese advancement during World War II, Australia touches upon the country's horrific treatment of its half-caste children (produced when whites seduced or raped Aboriginal women), although with so much territory to cover both literally and figuratively the movie doesn't provide much more than a surface look (see 2002's Rabbit-Proof Fence for a more thorough examination). What it does provide, in those moments when Luhrmann isn't allowing the material to spin out of control, is the sort of old-fashioned yarn Hollywood used to produce on a regular basis, with sweeping vistas providing backdrops for couples clinched in love. But for a primer on the land down under, you'd do just as well renting Crocodile Dundee.