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AUSTRALIA (2008) ** movie review by COOP

Posted on December 3rd, 2008
Posted on December 3rd, 2008


Baz Luhrmann’s directorial debut, “Strictly Ballroom,” gave him success in his native Australia and a cult following in America. Later, he pushed boundaries with the stylized, modern version of “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” then surpassed them with the Academy Award winning “Moulin Rouge!” No doubt, fans and critics have been waiting for his grand Aussie epic “Australia” with high expectations. They should prepare for disappointment. This self-indulgent production adds up to little more than an admirable mess.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), livid that her husband has absconded to the Australian Northern Territories to invest their fortune in cattle, travels there in an attempt to bring him home to England. She arrives to find him murdered and the ranch in ruins. She employs an uncouth, yet honorable cattle drover, known only as “The Drover” (Hugh Jackman), to make one last drive to Darwin in an attempt to salvage her family fortune. Along with the help of a motley crew of ranch employees and Nullah, a magical aboriginal half-breed boy, Sarah and Drover try to outwit an evil cattleman (David Wenham) and keep the authorities from incarcerating the boy in a state institution. In the background World War II threatens to tear the characters and the country apart.

Imitating movies like “Gone with the Wind” and “Out of Africa,” “Australia” has the look and feel of a sweeping epic but fails to decide on a story. First there’s the tale of Sarah’s husband and the mystery of his murder. Then there’s the half-breed boy, his coming of age and his struggle against the racism of the era… The revitalization of the ranch… The evil cattleman… The budding romance of Sarah and Drover… The war reaching Australia… Too much is going on and none of it gets enough attention to fully satisfy. About halfway through, the romance story begins to take shape but eventually lapses into a lazy melodrama with an overemphasis on Aboriginal mysticism. Luhrmann needed to further develop the romance plotline with WWII in the background, jettison the goofy cattle-rustling villain and the silly Aborigine magic in order for any of this to be digestible to a modern audience.

“Australia” is a spectacle, not a film. This strategy may have worked in “Moulin Rouge!” but sweeping (non musical) epics require a solid story and a central theme. It imitates the style of a musical so much, you’ll find yourself waiting for the characters to break into a song and dance number, yet they never do. It appears Luhrmann decided to cut out the musical numbers at the last moment. There is plenty of music, but most of it comes across as awkward and forced. Example: “The Wizard of Oz” is used as a thematic element to the story with “Somewhere over the Rainbow” used liberally throughout. Perhaps this was included as an additional crutch to show the separation of the two race/cultural worlds within the country. Actually “Oz” has no place in “Australia” other than “Oz” being a nickname for the country itself. If that’s what Luhrmann was trying to do, it may be the lamest joke in the history of cinema.

Although the chemistry between Kidman and Jackman will attract audiences to the theater, Kidman should win a “Razzie Award” for worst performance of the year. Her stuffy, uptight English lady routine made her more parody than heroine. At times she acts like a comedic Audrey Hepburn, then makes a weak transition to the dramatic scenes, making her entire performance phony. Jackman, basically playing Brad Pitt’s character from “Legends of the Fall,” is out of place in this whimsical fantasy tale. Don’t be fooled by the trailers; this is not a cowboy shootout flick. Jackman carries a gun at all times but never fires a shot. Luhrmann keeps him tough and shirtless to amuse female fans, but then has him crying like a baby through most of the third act. What a waste of two talented actors.

The rich cinematography gives it a swell look and some of it entertains, but “Australia” is a poor excuse for high-quality cinema. If you’re up for some pretty pictures and feel that you must experience the Kidman-Jackson romance, you probably won’t regret paying to see it. The gorgeous scenery might have you planning your next vacation to Darwin and the Northern Territories. However, if you’re looking for an action-packed western filmed in the land of kangaroos and koalas, I would suggest “Quigley Down Under” instead.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Trailer below…

And a great scene from “Quigley Down Under” which is far better…

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