Too Much Down Under

Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and their fantastic chemistry can't save 'Australia'

While watching Australia, my heart broke. The film marks the return of a fun director, Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!), after a seven-year absence; it's also a reunion for him and Nicole Kidman. From the very start of this movie, it's clear that Luhrmann and his team gave their all in an attempt to come up with the ultimate Outback story--and it's hard to watch a good director fail.

Australia has the scope of Hollywood epics like Gone With the Wind, and it has two stars (Kidman and Hugh Jackman) with incredible chemistry. Unfortunately, it also has Luhrmann's chaotic, loud style, which doesn't suit this kind of story: We're watching a great director working outside of his normal area of expertise, and while the results are not disastrous, they're uncomfortable.

Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat who inherits a ranch in Australia and travels there, just before the breakout of World War II. An evil cattle baron is trying to take over her land, and she enlists the help of a man named Drover (Jackman) to drive a herd through the desert. Of course, the two embark on a romance; I must say that they have the capability of truly setting the screen on fire.

In fact, the film works best when it calms down and focuses on the love story between Lady Ashley and Drover. Kidman and Jackman share an onscreen ease that should leave their real-life spouses a bit concerned. There's a kiss in this movie that I will classify as one of the most romantic I've ever seen in a film.

But Australia is more than a love story ... too much more.

Ashley takes a liking to a young Aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) with supposed mystical singing powers. While this is supposed to lead to movie magic, it's just sort of goofy. A scene in which the boy uses his vocals to calm a stampeding herd of cattle lacks power; the story is unconvincing and silly. It's also worth mentioning that many of the CGI special effects in this very expensive movie look subpar--so bad that they can take you right out of the movie.

Kidman is in good form here, laboring to keep the monstrous affair afloat. As in Rouge!, Luhrmann's camera loves Kidman, and she takes none of the blame for the movie's failings. Jackman is so charming that it's crazy; Drover is the sort of role for which he was born. Too bad Drover is running around in a hyperactive, bombastic film that doesn't seem to recognize his charms.

Luhrman is currently attached to Wicked, a screen adaptation of the stage play about the witches from the Wizard of Oz. Interestingly, Oz plays a role in this movie when Lady Ashley tells the story to Nullah, who subsequently learns "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on harmonica. I know it's a bit off-subject, but I'm thinking Kidman might make a cool Wicked Witch. These are the sorts of things that ran through my head during Australia's nearly three-hour running time.

This movie wants to be everything, but winds up not really being about anything. It's just a bunch of overproduced scenes strung together, with occasional reminders that the stars are great and should try a nice, calm romantic comedy in the future.

Like many good directors before him, Luhrmann got a little carried away. Hopefully, he won't wait another seven years to make up for it.

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