Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Premise: Just before the breakout of World War II, an English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) inherits a cattle ranch in Northern Australia where a mixed-race aboriginal boy (Brandon Walters) and his family maintain the property. When a corrupt competitor threatens to take the land, they hire an experienced cattle hand (Hugh Jackman) to lead their livestock over the terrain.
What Works: Australia shows off director Baz Luhrmann’s talent for showmanship with some terrific visuals and a few well done action sequences, namely a cattle stampede that is edited together extremely well. The subplot of the story deals with the racism of Australian history, and it does this material fairly well. The picture acknowledges and incorporates racism into its intended summary of Australian history and then manages to make some commentary on it while not letting the message overpower the story. Of all the actors in the picture, Brandon Walters makes the biggest impression as Nullah, the mixed-race Aboriginal boy. The story is told from his point of view and the young actor’s energy and humor save the movie in many respects.
What Doesn’t: While Australia has some great visuals, it also comes up short in many ways. If Australia is lacking in any one element, it’s an epic story to fit into the film’s epic scope. The love story and family saga of Australia are too short sighted. Compared to Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves, Al Pacino in The Godfather, or Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, the characters of Australia are relatively flat. They barely change even as the environment around them changes dramatically. The film is really more like a John Ford or Sergio Leone film and Australia would have done better to follow that format in terms of its length and visual style. A lot of the film is cliché ridden, from the high society lady who finds satisfaction in dirty work, to the lone cattleman who finds his independence threatened by the prospect of love, to the native shaman who overlooks the proceedings. And even though the casting works, especially Hugh Jackman, the film does not give them anything to do with their roles except go through the motions of the typical western characters.
Bottom Line: Australia is entertaining but it’s not the epic that it aspires to be. It is epic in visual scale but it does not have the narrative scope to match.
Episode: #218 (December 14, 2008)