While watching Australia, my heart just broke. The film marks the return of a fun director, Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) after a seven-year absence, and it reunites him with Nicole Kidman. From the very start of this movie, it’s clear that the director and his team have kicked their own asses in trying to come up with the ultimate Outback story. While it can be a great thing to watch a great director give his all to a project, sometimes such an act can result in overkill. It’s hard to watch a good director fail.
Australia has the scope of Hollywood epics like Gone with the Wind and two stars (Kidman and Hugh Jackman) with incredible screen chemistry. Unfortunately, it also has Luhrmann’s sometimes chaotic, loud style that just doesn’t suit this kind of story. The movie often feels like watching a great director work outside of his normal area of expertise, and the results are not disastrous, but uncomfortable.
Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat who inherits a ranch in Australia and travels there just before the breakout of World War II. An evil cattle baron is trying to take over her land, and she enlists the help of a man named Drover (Jackman) to drive a herd through desert landscape. Of course, the two embark on a romance, and I must say they are capable of truly setting the screen on fire.
In fact, the film works best when it calms down and focuses on the love story between Lady Ashley and Drover. The two performers have the sort of ease with one another onscreen that should leave both of their real life spouses a bit concerned. There’s a kiss in this movie that I will classify as one of the more romantic I’ve ever seen in a film.
But Australia is more than a love story … perhaps too much more.
Ashley takes a liking to a young aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), who possesses supposed mystical powers. The child has the power to “sing things to him,” and while this is supposed to be movie magic, it’s just sort of goofy. A scene where the boy uses his vocals to calm a stampeding herd of cattle lacks power because the boy’s story is unconvincing and silly. It’s also worth mentioning that much of the CGI special effects in this very expensive movie look sub-par. It’s the sort of bad special effects capable of taking you right out of the movie.
Kidman is in good form here, laboring her butt off to keep the monstrous affair afloat. As in Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann’s camera loves Kidman, and she takes none of the blame for the movie’s failings. Jackman is so charming it’s crazy, and Drover is the sort of role he was made for. Too bad Drover is running around in a hyperactive, bombastic film that doesn’t seem to recognize his charms.
Luhrmann is currently attached to Wicked, a screen adaptation of the stage play about the witches from the Wizard of Oz. Interestingly, Oz plays a role in this movie when Lady Ashley tells the story to Nullah, who subsequently learns “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on harmonica. I know it’s a bit off the subject, but I’m thinking Kidman might make a cool Wicked Witch. These are the sort of things that ran through my head during Australia‘s nearly three hour running time.
This is one of those movies that wants to be everything, but really isn’t about anything that sticks in the craw. It’s just a bunch of overproduced scenes strung together, with occasional reminders that the stars are good onscreen and should try a nice, calm romantic comedy in the future. Like many good directors before him, Luhrmann gets a little carried away this time out. Hopefully, he won’t wait another seven years to make up for it.