Nicole Kidman plays a Barbara Stanwyck style, early Rancher Woman. Kimberly Gadette wonders: Will she get a stamp-ede of approval?
Maybe his parents forced a misbehaving Baz to suffer through bad music hall acts as a punishment in his formative years.
Or maybe he's a frustrated vaudevillian. Whatever the reason, after Moulin Rouge! and Strictly Ballroom, the first few scenes of Australia show that the Luhrmann propensity for overdone slapstick is taking another encore. In this case, as the opening of a sweeping drama of social consciousness, great love and survival against overwhelming odds, the cast’s eye-rolling, gape-mouthed, scenery-chewing exaggeration is as much out of place as Nicole Kidman's fake nose in The Hours.
But hang on, mate, don't leave, because once the dust settles, this Australia is quite a fascinating place to visit.
It's 1939. Concerned that her husband is cheating on her, the aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley flies to the remote tip of Northern Australia to grab him by force and drag him back home to England. But his ‘mistress’ is in reality a cattle ranch that others have been trying to steal from him. All Lady Ashley discovers is the crumbling spread called Faraway Downs and gasp! – a murdered husband. Though she means to leave, she finds herself inexplicably attached to an aboriginal child, as well as intrigued by the challenge of saving the ranch. Though the plot is similar to any Barbara Stanwyck-starring Western from the '50s, by way of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa (Meryl Streep's noblewoman falling for the adventurer who can't be tied down and learning all about herself while thriving in a strange environment), Luhrmann goes one step further, infusing the film with a mystical quality that is wholly authentic to this aboriginal land.
As this year's contender for overachieving year-end spectacular, the Titanic/Atonement/English Patient Oscar hopeful, there's much to admire. Among the highlights: the debut of young Aboriginal performer Brandon Walters, acting both as narrator and the child responsible for unlocking the heart of Lady Ashley; the sweeping vistas of a land not often explored in the cinema; two riveting scenes in which cattle are involved (and my, who knew 6,000 hooves could be so moooving?); and the delightfully simmering romance between Lady Ashley and Hugh Jackman's drover. We may see it coming, but the first kiss is done in such extreme close-up that every woman in the audience is guaranteed to melt. Most ambitiously, the film addresses of the plight of the indigenous people themselves, the children taken from their parents and forced to live in a segregated limbo (the "Stolen Generations"); a practice that, shockingly, wasn't abolished until the 1970s.
Then there's Ms. Kidman herself, the Ferragamo Fashion Queen of the Outback. Confirming her status as one of the finest actresses of her generation, her Lady Ashley's voyage of self-discovery is enthralling. Her early attempts to comfort the child are done to an awkward perfection, her rendition of a fragmented refrain of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ (perhaps the most unwilling vocal performance ever filmed) is extremely funny. Kidman needed to carry this film, and she meets the challenge beautifully.
Jackman, playing the wildly independent drover, isn't nearly as complex. He meets the expectations of appearing man-hunk sexy as he goes about the business of living while burdened with an aching heart. Strong performances by Jack Thompson's pixilated accountant and David Ngoombujarra's noble ranch hand add to the film's strengths. Especially noteworthy is Australian actor, dancer and musician David Gulpilil, the aboriginal King George, acting as both the spirit and anchor of the piece.
On the down(-under) side: David Wenham's villainous Fletcher is not allowed to develop a third dimension. Bryan Brown's Cattle King Carney is underused. Some scenes go on too long, over-inflating the drama rather than focusing it. Though there's a double reference to The Wizard of Oz (not just the popular 1939 movie, but Oz as Australia's nickname), the constant allusions to that film become tedious, as if 6,000 hooves were kicking us in the head. Lastly, the appearance of WWII in the film's third act seems extraneous, needing a stronger, earlier set-up.
But at nearly three hours, there's bound to be a bit of stumbling over this wild and wooly terrain. If the cows can make it over the river and through the outback, so can we.
Rating on a scale of 5 rugged ranchers: 3.5
– Kimberly Gadette on Australia
Release dates: US: November 26, 2008; UK: December 26, 2009
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay by: Stuart Beattie and Baz Luhrmann & Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, David Gulpilil, David Ngoombujarra, Brandon Walters
Rating: US: PG 13; UK: 12A
Running time: 155 minutes