'Australia': Oz Test, By Kurt Loder

Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman on the road to whatever.

There's a truly heartbreaking moment about two-thirds of the way through [movie id="336165"]"Australia,"[/movie] director Baz Luhrmann's cinematic tribute to his Antipodean homeland. Although the story is set Down Under, the picture is essentially — in fact proudly — an old-fashioned Western, complete with plucky widow trying to save her ranch from an evil cattle baron and handsome cowboy helping her do it. After sitting through about two hours of campfires, cattle drives and mad stampedes, we feel that the movie must soon come to an end. But then — this is the heartbreaking part — it suddenly turns into a World War II battle film and it just keeps going. For almost another hour. I nearly cried.

It's hard to imagine what Luhrmann thought he was doing with this picture. Clearly he intended to make an epic; and if we were to judge only by the film's interminable running time and its blockbusting budget (reported to be north of $120 million, but heavily discounted by Australian tax breaks), he might be said to have succeeded. But while the movie is packed with ravishing vistas — palm trees, billabongs, towering red cliffs and of course the vast, sunblasted Outback — its story is such a fusty mélange of Western-movie clichés that we might as well be camped out in the old cowpoke canyons of Utah, listening to the ghost of John Ford wondering who forgot to shoot the writers.

Briefly — to employ a word that's clearly not a part of Luhrmann's professional lexicon — it's September of 1939, the year Australia joined the U.K. in declaring war on Germany. Oblivious to this development, the posh Lady Sarah Ashley ([movieperson id="33634"]Nicole Kidman[/movieperson]) has pursued her wandering husband from England to the Australian cattle ranch he owns in the parched Outback. Upon arrival, she discovers he's been murdered, allegedly by an Aboriginal shaman called King George (David Gulpilil). The cattle baron, Carney (Bryan Brown), makes an oily offer of assistance: He'll take the ranch off the widow's hands for a price, and in the process complete his monopoly of the country's beef supply. Sarah decides to make a go of the place herself, but the only way to raise enough money to do so is to herd the 1,500 resident livestock off to Darwin, hundreds of miles away, to be sold. This seems an unlikely possibility — until a master cattle drover named, well, Drover (Hugh Jackman) turns up.

Naturally, these two are an ill-matched pair. Sarah is a prissy tenderfoot (Kidman might be auditioning for the Katharine Hepburn role in a remake of "The African Queen"), while Drover is a rough-hewn natural man, most at home under the sun and the stars, venturing into town only for an occasional round of hearty barroom fistfights. (Jackman's matey charisma is at full voltage here, but it's no match for the picture's energy-draining sprawl.) After Sarah fires her late husband's devious ranch foreman, Fletcher (David Wenham), who takes his best men along on his way out the gate, Drover is forced to assemble a new crew of cowpunchers from a very slim list of candidates. He winds up with an alcoholic accountant (Jack Thompson), a pair of Aboriginal ranch hands, a mixed-race boy named Nullah (13-year-old first-time actor Brandon Walters, who narrates the picture and is a real find), and, of course, Sarah herself. ("I will have you know, I'm as capable as any man!") So off they ride, into the flatlands of cowboy banality.

It is the tiniest of surprises that Fletcher and his nasty-looking henchman are in league with Carney — thus the stampedes and water-hole poisonings as they harass Sarah's party from every perimeter in an effort to prevent her from reaching Darwin. And at this point, it's heavily inevitable that Sarah and Drover should come together in the desert wastes for a silent waltz and a chaste kiss — although the very Spielbergian starry sky under which they do so is a little unexpected. What I couldn't figure out was how the skeletal King George — Nullah's grandfather, we learn — kept turning up at various far-removed locations saying things like, "I will sing you to the place where the rivers meet," when Drover and company were all on horseback and he was on foot. (This is probably unremarkable in the Aboriginal worldview.) As for the strange, incessant references to "The Wizard of Oz," I'm sure they're a small salute to the transcendent magic of movies, and not to the director himself.

In any event, Drover gets the cattle to Darwin, scotching Carney's nefarious schemes and saving Sarah's ranch. In any sane picture, credits would now roll. But no. Having secured the money to keep her ranch, Sarah suddenly decides to sell it. Then she decides not to. Then she invites Drover to accompany her to a fancy-dress ball. He refuses to go; then he changes his mind, and and eventually makes an entrance amid the party lights in a blindingly elegant white dinner jacket. Then Nullah is snatched by missionaries and taken to a nearby island reserved for the forced housing of mixed-race children (a social issue that may be too singularly Australian to resonate here). Then the Japanese Navy, fresh from its assault on Pearl Harbor, unleashes a fleet of bombers on Darwin, enveloping the city in a transparently digital conflagration. Then Drover disappears. Sarah thinks he's been killed. Then he returns, and he thinks Sarah's been killed. Then they realize they both were wrong. Then it looks like they may finally come together for good, with Nullah — who's not dead either — as their honorary offspring. But no. And still no credits are rolling.

Luhrmann's highly operatic sensibility (he directed his own production of "La Bohème" on Broadway a few years back) seems best-suited to over-the-top pop material like "Moulin Rouge." Here, his attempted blendering of some of the hoariest elements of old cowboy and war movies with sloshes of historical instruction and squirts of social consciousness lacks the wild style of that earlier film; it's just ungainly. Did he really think there'd be a large audience for nearly three hours of this? If so, his wish seems unlikely to become many people's command.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Milk," also new in theaters this week.

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