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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008 12:45 pm

Australia: A movie as grand as the continent itself

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Australia Running Time 2:45 Rated PG-13 Parkway Pointe. ShowPlace East

Director Baz Luhrmann has never been satisfied with modest productions. Strictly Ballroom, Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge, for good or ill, all wallowed in wretched excess and his latest, Australia, is no exception. Luhrmann’s trademark flourishes are on lavish display here as larger than life characters, heartrending emotional turmoil and a plot as deep as a puddle are all on display here. However, the conviction with which the filmmaker and his cast approach this material put it over the top and the result is an old-fashioned piece of entertainment that is far more emotionally satisfying than many of its contemporary counterparts.

Taking cues from Gone with the Wind, Red River and Giant, Luhrmann casts Aussie superstars Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman as opposites who are eventually attracted to each other. He’s the Drover, a rugged man’s man who takes great pride in being dependent on no man and belonging to no woman. He’s been in the employ of Lord Ashley, the owner of the Far Away Downs, the only cattle ranch in the Outback not owned by King Carney (Bryon Brown), who’s intent on having a monopoly on the industry. His intent is to be the sole supplier of beef to the Australian Army on the eve of World War II, however the arrival of Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) puts a kink in his plans. Determined to protect a young half-Aboriginal child, Nullah (Brandon Walters), and save her late husband’s legacy, she decides to deliver the cattle to market herself, with the Drover’s help and the ragtag bunch left on the ranch.

The cattle drive that follows is spectacular, though it does defy logic at times, particularly during a stampede that sends the herd precariously close to running off a cliff to certain death. No matter, it’s thrilling stuff as Luhrmann puts us right in the middle of this thundering herd and logic goes out the window as these beasts bear down on various characters. This is the film’s visual set piece and it delivers a kind of breathless excitement that’s all too rare in films these days. This sets the bar high for the rest of the movie and the rest of the drive proves anticlimactic. It’s obvious that Luhrmann cut out a large piece of the rest of the cattle drive as the characters are faced with crossing a deadly stretch of desert only to wind up at their journey’s end without incident. This upsets the film’s narrative flow but that doesn’t stop the director from taking the audience on an emotional roller coaster more than once before the movie’s end as Drover, Lady Ashley and Nullah all face separation and death with the outbreak of WW II and the efforts of Carney’s right hand man, Fletcher (David Wenham).

Unabashedly melodramatic, this film will put off those who eschew passionate romantic embraces set to swelling music or doe-eyed children whose sole purpose seems to be to break your heart. Yet, Jackman, Kidman and the rest know their job is to take things a bit over the top and they run with it. They’re required to inhabit characters and display emotions as grand as the canvas that Luhrmann has placed them in and they rise to the challenge. Jackman and Kidman are having great fun here, going at each other early on, warming to one another and falling passionately in love. They make you believe they’d overcome a Japanese air attack or a mustache-twirling villain to be together, and without this sort of conviction, the film simply wouldn’t work. Ironically, they’re both blown off screen whenever they’re forced to share it with Walters, a heartbreaker who steals every scene he’s in with his natural approach. Try taking your eyes off him. It can’t be done.

Nearly as large as the continent itself, Australia is good old-fashioned epic filmmaking that sets out to tell a passionate story on a grand scale and succeeds, though it does overstay its welcome. Luhrmann disproves the notion that “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” and I for one, wish other filmmakers would follow his lead.

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