Baz Luhrmann’s long gestating epic is a solid visual feast that is a bit disjointed story wise, but remains an entertaining film nonetheless.
Nullah is the films narrator and he is a young aboriginal boy who lives and helps around Far Away Downs, which is a cattle ranch owned by Lady Sarah Ashley’s (Nicole Kidman) husband, who we find is to have been slain, apparently by Nullah’s grandfather, right before her arrival to the ranch. She was brought to the ranch by The Drover (Hugh Jackman) a well known man in the cattle world both for his skill and his social back ground that has him on the outs with many people in town. The Drover was commissioned to drove the Far Away Downs’ herd to Darwin so that it can be sold to military for the war effort, but when Sarah discovers treachery in her main ranch hands, Fletcher (David Wenham), allegiance to the monopolizing king of cattle Mr. Carney (Bryan Brown) she leaves the Drover short on men and unable to make a final sell of her stock and property before returning home to England. Banding the farm hands together, The Drover and Sarah create a make shift crew of drovers to drive the herd to Darwin, with Nullah, The Drover, and Sarah at the lead.
This is the condensed set up for the picture, spoiler free and light on character development, but hopefully gives you a grasp of the main plot of the film. Where things get a little mis-mashed and maligned is when Luhrmann interjects moral messages and history into the film, which is fine, but he doesn’t do the smoothest job of making everything flow together. There are racial undertones, the relocation and education of the mixed skin children of the country, black rights, cattle monopolies and more sub-plots that pop up in the movie, and while they are all good causes to bring up, Luhurmann fails to integrate them into the story without feeling intrusive and a bit out of place at times. One other fairly big issue I had with the film was the use of the “fake death” to try and pull our emotional strings, it is just lazy filmmaking and there are more than a few occasions of this throughout the last third of the picture. The film itself almost seems like two movies actually, one being the western romp in the cattle drive, and the other being the impending attack on Darwin by the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The films imagery is grand though, and it sucks you into the epic scale of it all. The Drover is a fantastic character brought to life both physically and emotional by Hugh Jackman as he is able to handle just about anything this film throws at him; from the sweet moments with Sarah to the cold “free” man that burns inside him, he nails it. Jackman turns in another fine performance as he continues to be one of the best actors working today. The cattle drive is huge and enthralling and is definitely the high point of the film. It is the part of the film when everything is working, pacing, beauty, effects, everything just works in these scenes and it really shows off Luhurmann’s skills as a director.
Nicole Kidman also turns in a fine performance as Sarah Ashley; playing to those classic Hollywood female leads from the past without feeling out of place here in the present. Kidman is one of the best actors working today and she shows some range while having some fun here as she rides around the screen while creating excellent chemistry with Jackman. The rest of the cast does a fine job as well, with Wenham and Brown forming an admirable pair of villains for the film, with Wenham just oozing evil as he calmly moves about on screen. Wenham captures that perfect balance between being sinister without going over the top. Brandon Walters who plays Nullah is cute if a bit too cute, well maybe not him but his voice. It always rubbed me a bit the wrong way and while it was not deal breaker on liking the film, I can see the choice of him as the narrator rubbing more than a few people the wrong way.
In the end, Australia is a solid Hollywood epic of yesteryear that impress with the technical wizardry of today. Are some shots a bit overblown and unnecessary, sure, is the pacing and story a bit clunky, sometimes, but is the film enjoyable, most definitely. It’s a grand motion picture you don’t readily get to see nowadays, and it has a little bit of something for everyone. The film might run a tad long and could have used a bit of fat trimming, but the actors are great and the story works for the most part and this is definitely a film you should enjoy on the big screen; so go check it out today, it is worth your time.