Baz Luhrmann is one of those directors that people seem to love or hate. His films are typically vibrantly hued, frenetically edited, dramatic romances that contain classical or pop culture references. Most of the time, his characters sing and dance. He’s not the most prolific guy in the business, having made just four films in the last 16 years. If you don’t recognize his name, Luhrmann’s the man behind “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!,” and, his most recent, “Australia.”
The sweeping epic “Australia” takes place between 1939 and 1941, transpires in the rugged north, and centers on Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an uppity aristocrat who travels from England to Australia, hoping to convince her husband to sell their cattle ranch. Upon her arrival, she meets the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a fiercely independent and rugged stock man with whom she clashes. After several days of exceedingly rough travel, they arrive at her ranch and discover that her husband has been murdered. The suspect – King George (David Gulpilil), an aboriginal “magic man.” A look over the books reveals that she faces financial ruin, and a hostile takeover by King Carney (Bryan Brown), unless she can drive 2,000 head of cattle across the dusty and dangerous outback to an army ship. She is aided in her task by an odd assortment of people, including the Drover, a 12-year-old mixed race aborigine boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), and a drunkard named Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson). And this is only the first half of the 165-minute film! The second half details the bombing of Darwin, by Japanese kamikaze fighters.
“Australia” has been Luhrmann’s labor of love for many years, but it’s been plagued with problem after problem. For instance, Russell Crowe was originally attached to play the Drover but bowed out when his pay was cut. Then Heath Ledger was in and then out. The budget soared out of control. Most recently, it was feared that Luhrmann wouldn’t finish editing the film before its scheduled release date. Seeing that “Australia” opened at No. 5 and made only $20 million, I’m worried that it won’t make back its $130 million investment and will become a box office disaster. I’m worried, because I absolutely loved the film. That said, I’ve been a Luhrmann fan since I saw “Strictly Ballroom,” nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve been obsessed with Australia (and Australian cinema) even longer.
There are a lot of reasons I enjoyed “Australia” as much as I did. First off, from production and costume design by Catherine Martin to cinematography by Mandy Walker, the film is a visual treat. The screenplay by Stuart Beattie, Luhrmann, Ronald Harwood, and Richard Flanagan is a perfect homage to classic 1940’s Hollywood. The initially fractious relationship between Kidman and Jackman is reminiscent of one you might see between say Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, only the modern actors reminded me, visually, more of a Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. No one could deny that Kidman and Jackman exhibit palpable chemistry. The action sequences, especially the cattle drive, are exhilarating. The acting, overall, is phenomenal, from the lead actors to Walters, a beautiful child who acts here for the first time. It was an added pleasure to see so many great Aussie actors -Brown, David Wenham, Thompson, Bruce Spence, and Gulpilil – together in one film. Finally, even though the film is nearly three hours long, I never once felt “bored.” The characters are engaging and likable; and their circumstances intriguing. If one criticism can be made against Luhrmann, it might be that he attempts too much: “Australia” is a costume drama, a love story, a Western, and a social commentary on race relations. It’s what you might get should you mix together “Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “We of the Never Never,” and “Walkabout.” Like most of Luhrmann’s films, “Australia” will elicit strong emotions one way or the other. People will undoubtedly despise it or they will shout its praises from a mountain top. I’ll be including it in my Best of 2008 list.