Buz Luhrmann is one those directors who have their own signature styles. Since the success of Moulin Rouge, his second collaboration with Nicole Kidman had been highly anticipated. Throw in the newly selected “the sexiest man alive” Hugh Jackman, an epic background and a grand setting in the down under, Australia was gathering a lot of buzz going into the theatre. I had all the reasons to like this movie, and yet that could also be why I was disappointed.
Kidman played Lady Sarah Ashley, and English aristocrat who was determined to travel half of the globe to Australia to find her husband, only to find that he had been murdered while driving his cattle across the river. Enlisting the help of a handy man for hire, Drover (Jackman), Sarah decided to inherit the farm and compete with the monopoly cattle baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown), for vengeance for her husband’s death by the hands of Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). She also developed her mothering nature with an aboriginal boy Nullah (Brandon Walters). Just when Sarah settled down with her new family, World War II and the Japanese hit Australia, Sarah was left to fend for herself and fight for the people she cared for…
The story and setting of Australia had the mould of epic movies such as Far and Away – which also starred Kidman – and the all-time classic Gone With the Wind. Director Luhrmann was certainly not trying to hide his ambition, and he gave this film his usual gaudy style. The problem was that he tried to fit too much into this production that he had planned for many years. The audience could feel the loss of focus and thus the reduction in intensity, which is key in epic movies.
I could ignore the obviously surgically improved face of Kidman, whom I’ve adored since her Mrs. Cruise days. I could neglect the shameless effort to display Jackman’s hunky body. It’s the story that bothered me. With its long running time of 165 minutes, it was understandable to rush things a bit here and there. Therefore, they had more the reason to chose what to trim and what to keep in the editing room. The film felt like two movies put together. The first half was a western-romance; the second half was an inadequate war drama. The split personality was the biggest problem of the film for me. I’d rather see a fully fleshed story of how the opposite leads attract each other in their journey across the harsh land of Australia to rise against the rule of King Carney and the cold blooded villain Neil Fletcher.
I understand the importance of Stolen Generation. In fact, Nullah was the essential element of Australia. If you find Walters adorable, not annoying, then you probably would enjoy the film as a whole. But to me, it lost its momentum after Lady Sarah Ashley had tamed the wild horse that was Drover, and everything afterward was excess. It was and injustice considering the issue’s political and historical significance. That’s why I think it should be another movie on its own to get all the spotlight it deserves. Instead, the the two storylines almost competed with each other for attention, risking the audience to lose interest after 2 hours.
Nicole Kidman has not been her best in her recent choices of projects. Working with Luhrmann, I expected more from her. She was surprisingly good in the comic parts of the movie, but seemed vacant in others. Being shy and sometimes perceived as cold, all the nip and tuck certainly didn’t help with her expression of emotions. (Seriously, she’s one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She doesn’t need that to be loved. Ditch the insecurity, Nicole!) Hugh Jackman definitely had his charm, being a very convincing rugged and masculine cowboy, drastically different from his musical-loving, The Boy From Oz side. It seems like there’s a trend for Lord of the Ring alumni to play villains. David Wenham was not exempt. He was a qualified classic villain, always driven by his self-interest. I would have liked to see more of his back story, though.
Australia had everything of an epic movie, the cast, the set, the historical backdrop, and the beautiful landscape of down under. Unfortunately, in its desperate attempt to include everything, it failed to be a classic for this decade, as it claimed to aim for.
Photo © 2008 20th Century Fox