Review: Australia is One of a Kind

"It's charmingly quirky, poetically political, cartoonish, and both sentimental and serious."

 

Another Water World disaster? A Gone With the Wind classic?

Australia is not exactly what anyone predicted.

It's Out of Africa meets Gone With the Wind meets Saving Private Ryan meets Baz Luhrmann. As narrated by cute-as-a-kangaroo Aboriginal/English half-caste boy, Nullah.

A three-hour movie mouthful.

The strangest woman Nullah's ever laid eyes on (and the most ageless we've ever seen, though I did catch a wrinkle in a close up), Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman) stiffly sashays off the boat from England on a mission to bring her wayward husband home. Her escort to his cattle station is none other than a man enigmatically titled "the Drover" (Hugh Jackman aka the Outback's Clark Gable), a burly, tautly muscled, sweaty Adonis whose gleaming white grin belies his lack of dental insurance. Mutual hostility and hot-tempered tiffs are the transparent prelude to a hot romance between this "English Thoroughbred" and "Bush Brumby." When they reach Faraway Downs, things do not go as planned; Ashley decides to "drove" the ranch herd to Darwin to pursue a lucrative army contract and break the monopoly of corrupt cattle rancher King Carney. The perilous journey pits the pair against the Outback and Carney.

Sounds like a sizable story, no?

But that's just one of many plots rolled up into one fat cinematic cigar. Add to that adventure the mystical, moral tale of the Aborigine's Stolen Generations. And add to that WWII and Australia's Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Darwin.

But it's not as serious as it sounds. At least, not through Luhrmann's lens. Australia's landscape is lush with cheek, corniness and clichés: A too-tightly stuffed Lady. A brash Ozzie bull who brawls with suitcases for fists. Nullah's grandfather, the inexplicably indestructible King George, striking a classic crane pose around every corner. A plethora of "crikeys," "makeums" and melodramatic one liners -- "we CAN'T let them win." And The Wizard of Oz. The melody of Somewhere Over the Rainbow is never far from the characters' (or the audience's) ears. Neither are allusions to the musical.

That's just one of many kinds of movie magic that Baz has generously sprinkled his film with. Along with the old Hollywood, bigger-than-life screen sirens kind -- the Drover all cleaned up and swashbuckling in a crisp white suit (I expected a Strictly Ballroom twinkle on his teeth). And the CGI kind, sometimes when you might prefer to view the splendor of Australia au natural. And of course the Aboriginal kind -- didgeridoos, dreaming and the sorcery of songs.

Jackman and Kidman make sparks fly with their on-screen chemistry, but the sparks aren't heart-wrenching. Neither suffers without the other for very long. Both deliver charismatic performances along with the supporting cast -- though at times Nullah a bit cloying.

So is Australia a great romance? A war epic? An epic comedy? It's hard to tell, even (it seems) for Luhrmann. Australia has a personality (and directorial style) that's hard to pin down. It's charmingly quirky, poetically political, cartoonish, and both sentimental and serious -- though any manifestations of the latter are hard to believe in light of the former. Amidst the surreal beauty of Darwin smoldering after the Japanese attacks, Ashley's laughter disturbs the drama. In grave situations Luhrmann's lens makes for a strange perspective. And the film's shape-shifting personality makes it hard to emotionally invest in any one aspect, romance, etc.

It's as if Baz has sung us a theatrical spectacle about a few of his favorite things. "War mooovies ... wild westerns ... lala ... laa ... laa ..."

He ties them all together with a bow and presents audiences with a motley mix that somehow still makes for a fantastic story and an Olympian adventure that's easily entertaining. Luckily, Australia contains some of our favorite things as well.

Grade: B