Three and a half stars (PG-13)
I enjoyed Australia. I'm going to pick at the film starting in a few sentences, so I want to establish that, despite its problem areas - and there are many - the good outweighs the bad. Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom) is nothing if not ambitious, setting out to make a quasi old-fashioned epic combination of a Western, a romance, a war story and a message movie about racism. He takes viewers on a long bumpy ride, but it's generally an entertaining journey.
As evidenced by his previous films, Luhrmann is a theatrical filmmaker, as is made obvious in the first few moments of the movie. When very proper Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley's (Nicole Kidman) luggage gets dumped in the street outside a rough and tumble Australian saloon and her underwear is scattered around the dusty street, the local men react with noisy laughter of the "Haw Haw Haw!" variety. If that situation happened in real life, the reaction likely wouldn't be so cartoonish, but this isn't reality, this is epic movie theatricality, where tough blokes act like they just strutted over from the set of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I'm not complaining about this, just noting it so that you can properly prepare yourself for the Australia experience.
The story: Lady Sarah arrives in Australia in September 1939 only to find her husband dead. She decides to keep the isolated run-down ranch - Faraway Downs - going and to make sure the cattle are driven to market. To that end, she hires Drover (Hugh Jackman), a cowboy as skeptical as he is rugged. The team that ends up herding the cows is Drover, Lady Sarah, Drover's partner Magarri (David Ngoombujarra), bookkeeper Kipling (Jack Thompson), housekeeper Bandy (Lillian Crombie), cook Sing Sing (Yuen Wah) and, most importantly, an adorable little boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters). Nullah is a mixed-race child and the practice in Australia then was to separate such kids from their families and take them to missions, where the government hoped to "breed the Aboriginal out of them" over a few generations. The practice continued for decades.
Lady Sarah and Drover squabble, Nullah could be snatched by the authorities at any time and the motley crew tries to manage to cattle drive, while evil competing ranchers King Carney (Bryan Brown) and Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) try to stop them. The story hits all the clichés of the genres with gusto, and I had fun watching the gorgeous landscapes and listening to the appealing cast sell the hokey dialogue.
After about an hour and 45 minutes, the story wraps up with a satisfying scene at Faraway Downs - but wait, the movie still has nearly another hour to go, so everything gets stirred up to make the production even more epic. Again, I'm not complaining - the long running time doesn't feel long and I appreciated a number of the post-obvious-ending scenes - but to best enjoy the film, you need to be aware that you're going to be sitting for quite a spell and that just because the movie feels like it's over doesn't mean it is.
Broadway veteran Hugh Jackman does a fine job playing the iconic he-man and Nicole Kidman is certainly accomplished at looking out of place on the frontier, but young Brandon Walters steals the movie - what a great kid.
Baz Luhrmann's attempts to be old-fashioned and post-modern simultaneously lead to a number of clunky moments. Visually, the movie is a corker, though some of the portrait shots of key characters look as though they were filmed in front of a green screen. The special effects are dicey in spots, especially in scenes involving smoke or fog. Luhrmann overreaches in Australia and the result is choppy and sometimes cheesy. If you want to tear the movie apart, there are plenty of places to start ripping. But if you like big soapy epics and are in a forgiving mood, Australia pays off.