‘Australia’ With Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman Gets Lost in Own Cinematic Outback

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Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and newcomer Brandon Walters star in Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia”: a sweeping, grand epic in the tradition of “Gone With the Wind” that gets away from its talented director, the writers he worked with and the team he hired to film his passion project.

Luhrmann and co-writers Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan take an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to adding elements of classic romance, historical epic, cultural statement and war movie into their sprawling vision of some of Australia’s most formative years. Taken separately, those divergent elements in “Australia” nearly work. When the film is viewed as an entire experience, the final combined product is ultimately unsatisfying and woefully disjointed.

The Drover (Hugh Jackman) and Sarah (Nicole Kidman) are plunged into upheaval, adventure and romance in Australia
The Drover (Hugh Jackman) and Sarah (Nicole Kidman) are plunged into upheaval and romance in “Australia”.
Photo credit: James Fisher

The first half of “Australia” details the formation of a rather unusual family made up of The Drover (Hugh Jackman), lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and a half-white, half-Aborigine child named Nullah (Brandon Walters). Lady Ashley comes to the land down wnder to check on her husband and their patch of land (Faraway Downs) only to find her significant other executed and their cattle being stolen.

She needs The Drover’s assistance to drive the remnants of her family’s herd to the city of Darwin and sell them right under the nose of King Carney (Bryan Brown). He’s the ruling meat baron of the island nation. Trying to evade Carney’s nefarious associate, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), The Drover and Ashley fall for each other. The two naturally become parental figures for the charming young man who helps them across the Australian outback.

Newcomer Brandon Walters portrays a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy in Australia
Newcomer Brandon Walters portrays a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy in “Australia”.
Photo credit: James Fisher

There could literally be an intermission and an act-two title card for the second half of the film, which picks up a few years later in the days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. What’s not often taught in history classes is that – following the day that will live in infamy – the Axis troops moved South and unloaded on Australia. They destroyed the city of Darwin in the process. The hero, heroine and child of “Australia” therefore must survive the Japanese army to keep their unconventional family together.

While no one has ever accused Baz Luhrmann of subtlety, his over-the-top bravado was first and foremost in the service of a love story in his red-curtain trilogy (“Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!”), which made the emotional excesses not only forgivable but essential to their success. While the romance at the center of “Australia” definitely works, the material around it feels outside the scope of Luhrmann’s strengths. The attempts at cultural statements about the treatment of Aborigines, the maternal bond needed between Ashley and Nullah and the material with the boy’s grandfather all fall flat.

Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and The Drover (Hugh Jackman) find adventure and romance during their fateful journey across Australia.
Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and The Drover (Hugh Jackman) find romance during their fateful journey across Australia.
Photo credit: James Fisher

What’s worse is that the pacing of the “Australia” script never feels right. There’s too much weight to elements that merely stretch the running time to epic length and not enough to the ones that might have given Luhrmann’s film some lasting emotional power.

StarView our 23-image “Australia” slideshow.

StarRead more film reviews from critic Brian Tallerico.

Even the creative people behind-the-scenes of “Australia” feel a little overwhelmed by the unfocused material. While cinematographer Mandy Walker knows how to frame a pretty picture (something our 23-image “Australia” slideshow clearly proves), she never gives the film the visual confidence it needs to be truly memorable.

With the sets, costumes and even the score, every element feels “good enough” without registering beyond the closing credits. The film is shockingly easy to let go of when the lights come up. The true classic epics that Luhrmann wanted “Australia” to emulate never were.

A successful epic is more than just the sum of its expansive parts. They need to blend together into a cohesive vision. Kidman, Jackman and Walters don’t hit a false note in the film. It’s just that the song they’ve been given to sing meanders, changes rhythm and is ultimately much too forgettable.

“Australia,” which is directed by Baz Luhrmann, stars Nicole Kidman, High Jackman and Brandon Walters. The film opens on Nov. 26, 2008.

Staff Writer

Jon's picture

Cinematography Sucked!

This is the only movie in recent memory that actually hurt my eyes… Half-way through this monumentally long film I became painfully aware that the filmmaker had this compulsion about close-ups!

From half-way through to the end of the film, you watch and you’ll see. Close up so that Hugh Jackman’s face fills the screen. Close up so that Kidman’s face fills the screen. OR start from 3/4 shot and then zoom in to a close-up of.. you guessed it.. Jackman’s/Kidman’s faces. Even the villain (cardboard character that he is) gets the obligatory close-ups… repeatedly. I mean it, folks… REPEATEDLY.

I can’t believe this reviewer complimented the cinematographer on the “framing” of the shots… were we watching the same film? The wide shots of the destruction and the planes and the explosions were cool (although a number of the landscape shots were obviously digital). This movie felt CHEAP to me. It felt CHEAP on different levels.

Rushed. Couldn’t budget for location shots, so they went digital instead. And the overriding rule seemed to be… when in doubt, ZOOM TO CLOSE UP.

Could have been a better film.

Oh, and one last criticism… why on earth are Hugh Jackman’s shirts and slacks so friggin clean? He’s outdoors-y. He’s in the dust, riding horses… yet every shot, he’s ready for his photo op. He’s ready for the cover of Vogue. Ridiculous.

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