Over the top down under
Baz Luhrmann might have called his new movie Sarah and the Drover or Faraway Downs or Darwin. But he had bigger things on his mind than just two lead characters, the cattle estate owned by one of them or the port city bombed by the Japanese during World War II, so he called it Australia instead. Luhrmann wanted nothing less than a huge sensuous spectacle distilling the facets of his native land into one grand romantic adventure—the sort of epic David Lean made with Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and at least tried for with Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India.
But Lean was meticulous, disciplined and subtle (to a fault). To Luhrmann, subtlety is for sissies and discipline is for wimps; his movies are unruly machines that clank and rattle and lurch, blazing with delirious, garish colors like a clown car in the circus. People who regard Luhrmann as a master filmmaker consider his masterpiece to be the frenzied musical pastiche Moulin Rouge. But they may switch allegiance after they see Australia—if Moulin Rouge was Busby Berkeley with attention-deficit disorder, this is Lean on a sleep-deprived Benzedrine binge.
Nicole Kidman plays the primly British Lady Sarah Ashley. In September 1939, just as war breaks out in Europe, she flies to Australia to prod her husband into selling Faraway Downs, their failing cattle ranch, to beef baron King Carney (Bryan Brown). She arrives to find her husband murdered—ostensibly by an Aborigine named King George (David Gulpilil), but in fact by Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), the Faraway Downs manager secretly working for Carney.
When Lady Sarah impulsively fires Fletcher for brutalizing a half-caste Aborigine boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), she is stuck for a way to get her cattle to market at Darwin. In desperation, she turns to the drover (Hugh Jackman), a rugged loner with no home and, evidently, no name. (Everybody calls him “Drover,” so maybe his first name is “The.”) A reluctant savior, Drover cobbles together a crew for the cattle drive, including Nullah and Lady Sarah herself, plus Lady Sarah’s drunken lawyer (the great Jack Thompson, wasted with little more than a few boozy lines before being trampled in the obligatory stampede).
The triumphant drive against hopeless odds and the thundering, dusty procession of horns and hooves through the streets of Darwin are only the first of Australia’s many climaxes. Coming after nearly an hour and a half (and to the swelling strains of David Hirschfelder’s ersatz Magnificent Seven score), you might think the movie was almost over, but Luhrmann—and his co-writers Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan—are just getting wound up. There is still a reckoning to come with Neil Fletcher—who, it turns out, is not only Nullah’s father, but follows his earlier treachery by murdering King Carney and marrying his daughter. Then, in February 1942 come the Japanese air raids on Darwin, and everyone’s fate hangs in the balance.
Meanwhile, Lady Sarah has (improbably) instilled in Nullah an affection for The Wizard of Oz. This makes “Over the Rainbow” Australia’s makeshift theme song; Luhrmann tries for the kind of resonance “As Time Goes By” gave to Casablanca, but he’s too ham-fisted to make the corn pop up warm and fluffy. His big emotional payoff is supposed to be the sound of “Over the Rainbow” played on a harmonica in the ruins of Darwin Harbor—but (as Oscar Wilde said of Dickens) it would take a heart of stone not to weep with laughter.
For Luhrmann, too much is never enough. Still, in its way, Australia delivers the kitschy goods. After all, you can’t bring Kidman, Jackman and the entire down-under acting profession together with all that breathtaking Outback scenery and not strike a few visible sparks—even when the scenery is computer-generated and the stars are bobbing around on mechanical horses playing cowboy in front of process screens. In his epic love letter to Australia, Luhrmann strives for the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Well, despite all the Hollywood echoes from Red River to From Here to Eternity, nobody ever made movies like this, and only Luhrmann makes them like this now.