With his previous feature film Australian director Baz Luhrmann came within tasting distance of a Best Picture Oscar, as well as several other awards. Moulin Rouge! (2001) did win two, for Costume Design and Art Direction, but all the glory that year went to other things. He must have taken notes; The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring cleaned up in the technical categories with four Oscars, and Black Hawk Down took two more. Two serious, disease-of-the-week dramas won in the "upper" categories: A Beautiful Mind and Iris. The following year, Luhrmann must have watched while the jaunty Chicago won Best Picture, and Roman Polanski won Best Director for his lengthy Holocaust drama, The Pianist.
So Luhrmann set out to work on his fourth film, Australia. Maybe it started out once, many years ago, as a 90-minute pop-Western about driving cattle and saving the farm. This entire section is bright and quick and exciting -- and lots of fun. But then perhaps he decided that that just wasn't enough, or at least it's not enough for anyone who wants to win a great big Best Director trophy. So at the 90-minute mark, Australia more or less stops, transforms itself into a giant-sized World War II drama, complete with grayness, dropping bombs and angel choruses, and keeps going for another interminable hour. But is it enough to fool Academy voters?
Nicole Kidman stars as Lady Sarah Ashley, an upright society lady from London who knows how to canter on horseback through the park. She travels to the land Down Under to check up on her husband, who is running a cattle farm, though Sarah is sure that he's dallying with the local ladies. She arrives to find him dead and some bad guys ready to buy the farm cheap. But she learns that the farm is worth a great deal more than she has been led to believe and all she has to do is round up her herd, drive them to market and enjoy the profits.
Enter "the Drover" (Hugh Jackman), who has been hired to pick up Miss Ashley and transport her out to the farm. He's in the middle of a barroom brawl when she arrives, and some of her 19-odd bags and suitcases are destroyed in the fray. The two snipe and harangue at each other during the trip, and Ashley's big city ways are constantly undercut by the every-man-for-himself, live-off-the-land Drover. This type of bickering, comedy Western stuff was previously pulled off in such delightful films as Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and Rooster Cogburn (1975), and it works here, too. Kidman is very endearing, traipsing through the dust in her white high heels and attempting to herd cattle by brushing at them and "shoo"-ing them with a Marilyn Monroe-like coo.
Of course, they'll end up together, but soon they'll be torn apart -- by war! Luhrmann has thus far been a lightweight entertainer, and he has absolutely no idea how to handle the war section. He copies many of the images from other war films, including the muted colors, the explosions and rubble, the use of sweeping search lights and serious, on-the-verge-of-death music. Not to mention the heroine with her hair and makeup mussed. But they never add up to anything with a pulse or a rhythm. It has no ebb and flow; it's all flow. It reeks of Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor.
To hedge his bets even further, Luhrmann includes a young Half-Caste character, Nullah (Brandon Walters), of mixed white and Aboriginal blood. Authorities are forever trying to haul him away to prison camps for "education" purposes, and the childless Sarah comes to view him as a son. This was a real issue in Australian history, and it has been covered -- much better -- in films ranging from The Last Wave (1977) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) to Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). Luhrmann's goal with this character seems to amount to nothing more than earning cute-kid points as well as politically-responsible points. (We even get opening and closing title cards, filling us in on the politics.)
Many people have wondered why Luhrmann didn't just make another musical, given that Hugh Jackman has proven a fine stage performer and has yet to sing on film? The material is already heightened and artificial; it would have been a perfect match. My guess is that Luhrmann had his eyes on the prize, rather than on the film, and he nixed singing and dancing in favor of "issues." It's too bad that he had to waste the all-encompassing title Australia on such a mixed mess; imagine what Peter Weir or someone else more talented could have done with it. We could have had something really representing the vibrant Aussie film industry. As a consolation, we get some great Australian actors in supporting roles: David Wenham (The Proposition) as the snaky villain, and small appearances here from Bryan Brown (F/X and F/X 2) and Bruce Spence, better known as the lanky Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior (1981).