Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Film review: 'Australia' an old-fashioned Down Under epic

By Hap Erstein

Say what you want about Baz Luhrmann’s big-budget epic Australia, but you can never accuse him of thinking small. Part mythic Western, part hot-blooded romance, part war movie and part racial melodrama, there are several different films densely packed into this $130 million, two-and-three-quarter-hour saga.

Although confined to the decade of the 1940s, Australia attempts by implication to tell much of the history of the rugged continent Down Under. That it does so through two towering characters played by a pair of that nation’s biggest homegrown stars — Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman — is a major part of the movie’s appeal. Having begun his career making intimate art films, director Luhrmann now serves up a huge, sweeping commercial vehicle that looks likely to be a genuine crowd-pleaser.

From her first appearance as Lady Sarah Ashley, a ramrod straight, formal Englishwoman far outside her comfort zone on the cattle ranch she will inherit, Kidman signals a willingness to kid her usual elegant screen persona. To avoid the threats to her ownership of the aptly named Faraway Downs, she will have to transport 1,500 head of cattle across northern Australia to the port of Darwin. That will require the talents of a macho cowpoke known only as The Drover (Jackman), who naturally takes an instant dislike to Lady Ashley, before falling passionately in love with her.

Luhrmann and his team of screenwriters consciously construct Australia from clichés of past movies, including frequent specific references to The Wizard of Oz and homages to the films of John Ford and, when Darwin burns to the ground, to Gone With the Wind. The center of the movie is that cattle drive, which allows cinematographer Mandy Walker to luxuriate in the Aussie terrain. The sequence climaxes in a stampede along the edge of a cliff, so exciting that the film quite recovers afterward, though there is plenty more story to come.

As uptight as Kidman’s character is, Jackman’s is in his element, at ease with the many perils they face moving across this uncharted land. If they are the film’s draw, young Brandon Walters is the emotional heart as a mixed-race Aborigine lad who narrates the tale. The refreshingly unmannered newcomer becomes the focus of events as he and other children of the so-called Stolen Generation are shuttled away during World War II.

While Luhrmann seemed intent on pushing cinematic boundaries forward in Moulin Rouge, with Australia he offers a they-don’t-make-’em-like-this anymore movie, but with state-of-the-art technology. Unapologetically old-fashioned and requiring an audience attention span from an earlier era, Australia looks likely to boost tourism on that continent, as well vie for plenty of awards.

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