After a seven year absence, Baz Luhrmann returns to the director’s chair recruiting fellow Aussies Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in his attempt to pay tribute to the country of his birth.
However, fans of the director will be disappointed to see that while his visual style remains as colourful and vibrant as ever, the pacing and frenetic energy that kept audiences rapt in his previous work (Romeo + Juliet; Moulin Rouge) is beginning to wane in this newest effort.
While the Australia’s advertising campaign would have you believe that the interaction between Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman’s and their subsequent romance is what takes centre stage, the plot actually focuses on the half-Aboriginal boy, Nullah, and his experiences with the two characters during the advent of Australia’s entry into the second World War.
The film begins by following Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), who, after arriving in Australia, is forced to take over her recently deceased husband’s failing cattle ranch. It is in this outback setting that she befriends Hugh Jackman’s character, the free-lance cattle driver (he is simply referred to as ‘Drover’ throughout the film) and the Aboriginal staff (including Nullah) that help her to turn the desolate ranch into a true competitor in Australia’s seemingly monopolistic beef industry.
Kidman is spot on in her portrayal of the prim and proper English rose, and while the character and her development (from prudish and stuffy to passionate and loving) is rather clichÃ©, the actress manages to bring just the right amount of humour to the role, and it’s difficult not to like Lady Ashley when she finally lets her hair down in the film’s second half.
Jackman’s Drover, while epic eye-candy indeed, is not a particularly complex character and barely develops throughout the movie’s almost three hour runtime. However, there are plenty of shirtless scenes that will most likely distract the audience from this lack of character growth. However, while these two characters aren’t particularly deep, the smouldering chemistry between the two means that their interactions prove to be compelling viewing.
While the performances by Kidman and Jackman are above average at best, it is Nullah, (played by Brandon Walters in his feature film debut) who brings true sentiment to the film. He not only narrates the story, but also becomes the catalyst for the relationship between Lady Ashley and Drover. His identity crisis and journey into manhood, which could have been trite and uninteresting without a good performance, is definitely the most fascinating story arc of the many that appear throughout the film.
The movie’s meandering third act, which details how Australia was affected during World War II, proves to be its most significant downfall, completely ruining the colourful surrealism of the film’s first two thirds. All but the final third’s ending scenes feel completely out of place, and the otherwise slick, seamless pacing of the film is completely ruined.
Despite these few plot-related hiccups, Australia does indeed prove to be as aurally and visually stunning as one would expect from the creator of Moulin Rouge, with many lingering shots of the continent and its many gorgeous landscapes accompanied by an equally beautiful soundtrack, which includes several excellent renditions of Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow, an anthem that helps to bond the three main characters.
Luhrmann is clearly in love with his homeland and the native Aborigines, whose battle against prejudice is respectfully handled throughout this epic.
While the plot is decidedly unremarkable and driven by clichÃ©, it is difficult not to be entranced by Australia’s brilliant visuals (which manage to remain just outside of kitsch), its soundtrack and the character interaction.