Review by Jack Foley
BAZ Luhrmann will be the first to admit that he doesn’t do things by half measures. Hence Australia, his long-mooted labour of love, is a sweeping epic that sets broad comedy, romance, action and high drama against the backdrop of two of the darkest chapters in the country’s history.
That it’s only partially successful almost goes without saying, but for anyone willing to give into its excess there’s plenty to savour.
It’s 1939 and English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) ventures to Australia to reclaim her husband and sell their property, Faraway Downs. Upon arrival, though, she has to contend with her husband’s death, the presence of a young Aboriginal boy (Brandon Walters) who is wanted by the authorities and the threat to her property posed by rival landowners.
Teaming up with “rough-hewn local” The Drover (Hugh Jackman), she subsequently finds herself falling in love with Australia and embarks on a journey that will transform her life forever, culminating with the attack on Darwin by the same Japanese forces that bombed Pearl Harbour.
Luhrmann’s film is best viewed as a romp, even though there’s a certain naivety to the way in which he has chosen to mix Mills & Boon-style romance with Wizard Of Oz-inspired fantasy and hard-hitting social commentary.
It’s a mess in places, unintentionally hilarious at others… but a glorious achievement nonetheless.
Underpinning it is the plight of the Stolen Generation – Aboriginal children who were parted from their families and raised to serve their white owners. Yet Australia is also a shameless love letter to its rugged, often breathtaking landscape, as well as the sweeping Hollywood epics of yesteryear.
On the plus side, Hugh Jackman shines as the heroic Drover, combining the steely-eyed machismo of Eastwood’s Man With No Name, with the inner sensitivity of the modern man. He bosses every scene that he’s in and the film suffers whenever he is absent.
There’s engaging support, too, from a who’s who of Australian talent, whether its Bryan Brown’s ruthless business opponent, or Jack Davenport’s loveable old drunk.
Luhrmann makes maximum use of the scenery where possible and keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, delivering two spectacular set pieces in a massive stampede during a cattle drove and the bombing of Darwin by Japanese forces.
Unfortunately, he can’t always maintain the quality and persistently allows his enthusiasm to get the better of him. A knowing sense of camp does threaten to undermine the more serious elements of the story, while his decision to draw heavily upon The Wizard of Oz, and the song Somewhere Over The Rainbow in particular, does eventually grate.
His script is chock full of clangers (some of which will make you laugh out loud), while the two distinct tones make it feel like a film of two halves – or rather two separate movies.
Nicole Kidman, meanwhile, struggles with her English accent and genre stereotype and is one of the more annoying characters, particularly during the early scenes.
Indeed, such are the flaws with Australia that you could easily spend almost as many hours as the film’s running time picking it to pieces afterwards. But that would almost be missing the point – for Luhrmann will probably insist that everything is intentional and merely enhances the ride.
Australia is, therefore, a big, barmy epic that’s succeeds in spite of its flaws, offering plenty to enjoy for the hopeless romantics – not least because of Jackman’s commanding central performance.
Running time: 170mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: April 27, 2009
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Hugh Jackman interview
- Hugh Jackman - Australia photo gallery
- Baz Luhrmann interview
- Australia Movie Photos
- Australia receives lavish UK premiere
- Australia UK Premiere photos
- Read our preview