Even with Baz Luhrmann’s wild energy, this three-ring circus embarrasses Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and an entire nation in a way even Crocodile Dundee III failed to do.
After Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge, opera, and those Chanel commercials with favourite star Kidman, Luhrmann probably thought he was bullet-proof and could re-invent the epic for our time. If you thought any of those were over the top, be prepared for all-out excess on cinema from Down-Under.
Australia the movie is a strange beast; a marsupial movie; an uneasy evolutionary mis-step of old fashioned comedy-adventure with pretensions to John Ford Westerns and Michael Bay war movies. It presents Australia the country as that Wild West frontier land, on the edge of modernity, escaping the last vestiges of the British Empire by way of World War Two. It is filled with macho Aussie blokes and noble Aboriginals, stiff-upper lip British villains and dastardly Japanese invaders.
Kidman does a cringe-inducing turn as a starchy, British, old-school Maureen O’Hara / Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara) heroine, dragged across the dusty red wilderness of dingos and kangaroos to her late husband’s cattle station. A traditional fish out of water, no snake, spider or sanitation joke goes untouched. Hugh ‘Huge Action’ Jackman is the doughty stockman, an unreliable Aussie Ocker who drinks, swears, fights and takes his shirt off, somehow turning the macho John Wayne / Clint Eastwood role South of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
In keeping with the classic rom-com motif, the two leads hate each other for two thirds of the long (two hours forty-five) running time. Every barb and every gag is telegraphed from the top of Ayers Rock and sadly, they have no chemistry whatsoever. Not so much Hepburn and Bogart as Un-Hinged and Bracket (for British comedy fans).
It’s a long journey to the station and on to a cattle drive to Darwin, picking up rag-tag passengers and building an extended family on the road to personal growth; Kidman into ravishing mother-figure and Jackman into solid brave hero. A few thousand miles and a Japanese attack not unlike Pearl Harbour will do that do you. Apparently. Brandon Walters mixed-race Aboriginal child is just too cute to bear, and the only casual racist character in the cast is David Wenham, which is just a bit too much airbrushing of history for my liking. Baz clearly didn’t want to upset the Aussie Tourist Board.
Aussie faithfuls Bryan Brown and David Wenham do their best to rescue the acting from all-out Scary Movie parody; one the unsavoury cattle baron, the other, outright villain. However, Luhrmann’s wild, unrestrained style has the whole thing leaping around like a Loony Toons cartoon meets Gone With the Wind and yet it still feels an hour longer than it is. You can never accuse our Baz of lacking ambition. Remake The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Out of Africa, Empire of the Sun and Pearl Harbour? Why not.
Ultimately it’s Luhrmann’s lack of both discipline and consistent style that torpedoes Australia more effectively than the Japanese, not even the stoic Aboriginal grandfather can save it.
We await with trepidation his upcoming The Great+Gatsby, one of my favourite books. SC
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie
Running time: 2hr. 45 min.
Genre: Action & Adventure, Romance
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Ben Mendelsohn, Bill Hunter, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil
Related: Crazy Heart