The trailer showed images of this larger than life tale about a man, a woman and a war in the realm of Australia. I love Hugh Jackman. I never met a Nicole Kidman film I didn’t like (yeah, that even includes The Invasion) and I enjoyed Laz Burhman’s previous films (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge). I figured this would be the Titanic of 2008 and after watching all 166 minutes of it I thought I had witnessed the birth of a new epic movie. Or at least an earnest homage to the classics of yesteryear such as Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, and The Good Earth.

The story is pretty easy to follow. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) flies to Australia to reunite with her husband and check on the status of their cattle station, Faraway Downs. Sarah is escorted by Drover (Hugh Jackman) and his pals to the remote farm. Sarah finds out that her husband was murdered and all fingers point to an Aboriginal man named King George (David Gulpilil). With Lord Ashley out of the picture Sarah is left with a seemingly worthless plot of land. Instead of selling it to cattle ranch mogul, Lesley “King” Carney (Bryan Brown), Sarah decides to lead her cattle to the port in Darwin so she can sell the meat to the military and restore Faraway Downs. Leading thousands of cattle through the Outback is hard enough. Carney’s cronies, led by Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), do their very best to sabotage Sarah’s plans.

During the journey the proper lady and the dusty rancher grow closer and closer until they inevitably give in to their smoldering desires. But will the magic last beyond the drove? Is it true love or just lust in the dust?

The crust of this very large pie (comparing a film to a pie….now there’s a metaphor you don’t see everyday) is made up of the plight of young Nullah (Brandon Walters). Nullah is one of the many bi-racial children (half white / half aborigine) that are being picked up and shipped to private orphanages where they are to be raised and educated for the betterment of society. Yeah, I know, but we’re talking 1939 and if you know even a mustard seed of history then you know that civil rights were pretty messed up all over the globe back in the good old days. Well, some of Nullah’s family works at Faraway Downs so Nullah is in on most of the action that goes down. He also forms a strong bond with Sarah that adds a special twist to her love affair with Drover.

World War II eventually hits the shores of “Down Undah” (I just had to use the term at least once) and the lives of everyone in Darwin will never be the same.

Australia is a long movie but not in a boring way. For me, it was the same as watching one of the Lord of the Rings movies. There were so many interesting things to fill those two hours and change that time seemed to move quite swiftly. It also helped that the performances were pretty solid.

Ah, that Hugh Jackman. He really shows his leading man chops as the rough yet sensitive Drover. Jackman just has that sparkle about him. Okay, “sparkle” isn’t the best way to describe a male lead but Jackman is oozing it. The man can brawl in a bar one minute and then weep in the arms of his beloved the next without missing a studly beat.
Jackman also benefits from his character’s interesting past. The abs of steel help to complete the package as well.

Nicole Kidman is a pleasure to watch on screen, as always. Oh sure, you know she’s gonna transform from a snotty aristocrat to an Australian Calamity Jane. You know she’s gonna give in to her passion and grant the Drover a backstage pass to The Love Shack. But it’s Nicole Kidman and she glows whether she’s dressed to the nines for the town ball or covered in dust after driving the cattle through the Never Never. Some might think she overdid the distressed damsel routine in the early part of the story but I enjoyed watching Kidman play the silly snob for awhile. It makes her emotional destination that much more rewarding. Her scenes opposite Young Mister Walters are so adorable. It was so sweet to see her character, self professed horrid mother figure, try to comfort the young boy with a makeshift retelling of The Wizard of Oz. Kidman even delivers a not so hideous version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. I mean, the woman did her own vocals in Moulin Rouge plus she lives with a professional singer so I would imagine she would have enough ability to make it past the auditions on American Idol.

I’ve seen David Wenham as the honorable Faramir in LOTR: The Two Towers and Return of the King and I’ve seen him as Hugh Jackman’s silly sidekick in Van Helsing. So, I was astonished to see Wenham as the dastardly Neil Fletcher who serves as a major thorn in Lady Ashley’s side. He’s ruthless, shifty, and murderous. A ‘thumbs up’ to Wenham for playing such a morally bankrupt character and providing ample opportunities for booing and hissing.
I was talking with a couple of friends of mine about Australia and a few of them remarked that aside from the Aborigine aspect the plot was typical of classic westerns. It seems the “lone woman and the steel jawed cowhand team up to take the herd through the prairies” scenario has been played before. Since the only westerns I’ve ever seen are The Three Amigos and Blazing Saddles this cattle driving scheme was completely new to me.

I also don’t know how historically accurate Australia is. While I appreciated the attempt to school viewers about some of the aspects of the country circa 1939 it seemed it was more of a backdrop to the romantic storm brewing between Drover and Sarah. As with most “historwood” projects I really feel a strong urge to find some history books on the subjects noted in the film.

I think Australia made great use of the screen. Supersized screenshots, glamorous performances, and obstacles of major proportions made the running time worth sitting through. Jackman is a classic hero figure and Kidman exudes sophistication and glamour even when covered in dust. Brandon Walters charmed the socks off me and David Wenham is quite good at being bad.

Baz Luhrmann made an impressive effort to create a modern epic that recalls the days of DeMille while keeping true to his own personal style. Australia didn’t seem to dethrone Titanic as the next hit modernized romance epic movie (based on the so-so box office performance) but I think it came very close. Emotionally and stylistically, anyway.