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Monday, January 5, 2009


Baz’s big, bold, choc-a-bloc epic. (Review by Billy Suter, courtesy of The Mercury)

With its sumptuous spectacle, sweeping cinematography, impressive period detail and cascade of grand melodrama and sentiment, Australia certainly is compelling cinema, earnestly striving to come across like one of the costly, old-fashioned epics of old.

But another Gone With the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia it ain’t.

Under the direction of the talented, but often overly flamboyant, think-bold, think-big Baz Luhrmann, who gave us Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom, we have a film that runs too long at 165 minutes and tries to be far too many things to make it a classic.

It may be wonderful to look at, but the film is superficial, with an uneven tone. Embroidered as it is with a bit of a sly wink and a nudge, the characters and dialogue are almost hammy at times, the action, particularly in the first half-hour, quite playful, even slapstick.

This doesn’t sit very well with the rest of the film, because the hefty story becomes increasingly serious as it sprawls, sometimes uneasily, to cover everything from a gruelling cattle drive across the parched Outback to an inevitable romance and the Japanese attack on Darwin during World War 2.

We also get a side-plot involving murder and corruption and, to boot, earnest nods to Aboriginal folklore and mysticism, and the Down Under political controversy that saw half-caste children being torn from their mother’s sides to be relocated and educated at mission schools.

There’s too much going on – and for good measure we also get a fairytale motif in recurring references to The Wizard of Oz, handled with too heavy a hand.

To hurl in another grumble, I didn’t particularly find much chemistry between the pencil-thin, newly trout-pout Nicole Kidman and a tanned and often-topless Hugh Jackman, who is very much in burly, butch, He-man mode here.

Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley who, in 1939, arrives in Australia from England to manage a cattle farm that has gone to ruin following her husband’s death. There she slowly forms a strong bond with Jackman’s character, cattle-driver Drover, whom she intensely dislikes at first then gets to join her staff; and a charming half-caste boy called Nullah (standout newcomer Brandon Walters), to whom she becomes a guardian when he is orphaned.

When a nasty cattle baron (Bryan Brown of The Thorn Birds) threatens to snatch her farm and livestock, Sarah joins both Drover, Nullah and assorted farmhands to drive her cattle across the mountain-and baobab-flecked Outback, where they can be sold to the army in the build-up to the war. This leads to the love story, the war and an ending that is not too difficult to predict.

I can’t help but quote an American reviewer who has rather cleverly observed that Australia is an epic pretender rather than an epic contender. Rating 6/10 – Billy Suter