“Run for your lives! The movie’s 165 minutes and I’m terrible in it!”
AUSTRALIA directed by Baz Luhrmann, written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan from a story by Luhrmann, with Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Jack Thompson, David Gulpilil and Brandon Walters. A Fox release. 165 minutes. Now playing. For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NN
I will follow Baz Luhrmann anywhere. I was with him for the swooning majesty of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet; I was with him on the spectacular spectacular that was Moulin Rouge!
But I cannot accompany him to Australia.
Australia is Luhrmann's attempt to make the sort of grandiose, sprawling epic that comes along once in a lifetime. It's Gone With The Wind, Red River and Titanic all rolled up in one staggering package, with constant nods to no less revered a touchstone than The Wizard Of Oz. At one point, Luhrmann even threatens to turn it into Lawrence Of Arabia, only to pivot instead into a montage borrowed from Citizen Kane. Psych!
Australia opens with a text crawl explaining the nation's strategic significance in the Pacific after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor and the country's practice of removing mixed-race children from their Aboriginal mothers and placing them in state-run mission schools, neither of which has anything to do with the first two hours of the film.
From there, we're yanked back to 1939 and the arrival Down Under of Nicole Kidman's fluttery Englishwoman, Lady Ashley - as witnessed by the half-caste boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), who lives on the cattle ranch managed by Lady Ashley's husband. Only he's just been killed, and Nullah saw it, sort of, while fishing in a sacred stream with his Aboriginal shaman grandfather (David Gulpilil). Also, some bad white men were lurking around. And there was a fish. It's all very busy.
Of course, "all very busy" is the way Baz Luhrmann works. His films, from Strictly Ballroom onward, are distinguished by a certain breathlessness made manifest in the swirling camera work, the explosive sound mix and the high emotional pitch at which the actors are required to function.
In those earlier movies, the strategy worked. Like a master plate-spinner, Luhrmann made all his disparate elements cohere into a powerful emotional experience.
But here, Luhrmann hangs the whole thing on Nicole Kidman, and she just can't deliver what he needs. So perfectly cast as Moulin Rouge!'s tragic, impenetrable Satine, Kidman is frankly awful in the central role of Lady Ashley; she's never been any good at the kind of outsized theatrical emotions that are required here.
Tasked with evolving from a properly brittle noblewoman to an earthy, lusty lass of the land under the tutelage of Hugh Jackman's brawny cattleman (he's known only as The Drover), Kidman starts out as a kind of frozen snoot and never finds a way to mellow into anything approaching a believable character.
Jackman does just fine - he bristles, he sweats, he makes nice with the cows and the horses. It's a charismatic turn, and the movie seems happier when he's around. But he also leaves the action for long stretches, saddling us with Kidman's awkward attempts to attenuate herself to the movie's emotional pitch.
As a result, Australia feels like a far emptier (and far noisier) place than it might otherwise have done. It's a spectacular failure, but at least it fails spectacularly.