Baz Luhrmann directs this sweeping historical epic set in northern Australia. Nicole Kidman stars as Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat who inherits a vast cattle ranch in the unforgiving Australian outback. When her land comes under threat from a takeover plot by English cattle barons, Sarah reluctantly teams up with a rough-edged drover (Hugh Jackman) to drive her 2,000 head of cattle hundreds of miles over some of the world's most desolate landscape. The pair then arrive in Darwin just in time to face the Japanese bombings that come only months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Watching the early reels of Australia
, there's certainly no doubt who's in charge: this could only be a film by Baz Luhrmann, that wacky purveyor of all things over-the-top. In this old-fashioned, 165-minute hymn to his native continent, Luhrmann travels back to the late 1930s/early '40s, for a scenario that would not have been out of place at MGM in that era. Straightlaced Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) journeys Down Under and is put under the protection of--crikey--a rugged cattle driver known only as the Drover (Hugh Jackman). When the two are forced to team up (along with a motley crew of misfits) to take a herd of cattle through the hostile landscape, their way is challenged by the dastardly plans of the local beef baron (Bryan Brown) and his elaborately evil lieutenant (David Wenham). At some point you realize that this film's main commodity is not cattle, but corn: Luhrmann piles on the melodrama and the old-school climaxes with his usual frantic glee. Employing "When You Wish Upon a Star" and the Japanese air force to make his case is not beyond Luhrmann, and he reaches big here. Those with a taste for un-ironic silliness might just go for this stuff, but even fans of the Baz will have their patience tested by the broad comedy and the absence of discernable chemistry between Kidman and Jackman. Australia
does manage to skewer the culture's prejudices against the Aboriginal people, but in this context such a victory comes across as rather tinny. --Robert Horton