Baz Luhrmann has always loved plunging into the cinematic deep end without a lifejacket: it’s the hallmark of his showboating career, from neoncamp debut Strictly Ballroom to the consumption addled delirium of Moulin Rouge!.
And now comes a film named after an entire country. Chutzpah? For sure, but subtlety doesn’t exist in Baz’s vocabulary. Outlandish ambition, on the other hand, is there in garish boldface…
Australia’s first 20 minutes clobber you in a patience-testing stampede of electric colour, bar-brawls and skipping kangaroos, as Nicole Kidman’s widowed aristocrat descends on Down Under cow-country circa 1939.
Endure that and you’ll reach the film’s most satisfying stretch, a sporadically gripping mid-section of deception and outback vistas as Kidman recruits Hugh Jackman’s cattle-wrangler The Drover to fend off Bryan Brown and David Wenham.
Luhrmann mashes epics (Lawrence Of Arabia, The African Queen) and themes (love, war, harmonica playing) through his meat-grinder to end up with an overseasoned stew.
But what is unexpected is how appetising chunks of Australia are, from the showpiece cattle drive to tender bonding between Kidman’s Lady Ashley and mixed-race outcast Nullah (Brandon Walters).
While it’s voguish to batter Kidman, her finest moments are a reminder that no major actress has done more consistent work in the past decade.
As for Jackman, he’s not the weakest link, but nor is he Russell Crowe, who would have brought more gruff gravitas to The Drover.
In fact, Australia’s biggest crime is failing to muster much emotional wallop, let alone rival the mythmaking of the classic epics it emulates.
You have to admire the ambition of Luhrmann’s saga, even as you’re boggled at his erratic grasp of tone/genre. Kidman impresses, while Jackman suffices in this mix of the laughable and the laudable.
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