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Review

‘Australia’ evokes disagreement amongst reviewers

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December 4, 2008

Early on in “Australia,” as Nicole Kidman is shuttled across the Outback for the first time, she spies a kangaroo racing alongside her jeep. Immediately taken with its grace and poise, Kidman sees herself in the creature: majesty, sprinkled with duty, driven by instinct. It is a moment of inward reflection cut short only by a bullet, and Kidman’s piercing scream that follows.

The scene sets the tone for Baz Luhrmann’s sweeping spectacle; there is great beauty to be found in Australia, but this curious sense of intrigue masks a near poetic brutality. The project is a pure labor of love for Luhrmann, who has crafted an ode to his homeland of Australia, never shying away from letting his patriotism paint the picture, colors running down the screen in rivulets of nationalism and pride. But the movie goes beyond simple love-lettering, tapping into the almost elemental human desire of romance for romance’s sake.  “Australia” is a tour-de-force of cinematic nostalgia, a picture that resonates with the loving scope and grandiose experimentation of past epics, and is powered by the same blood and energy as “Gone with the Wind” or “Ben-Hur.” Size may not matter, but it sure helps, and “Australia” can’t help but get carried away in the wake of its powerful imagery, beautiful scenery and grassroots storytelling.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) travels down under in the footsteps of her aristocratic husband, attempting to salvage or sell their failing cattle ranch, only to find herself widowed by the tip of a glass-edged spear. Taking the reins, Ashley hires the services of a stock man (Hugh Jackman) called only the Drover, a purposefully ambiguous name for the cryptic embodiment of tall, dark and handsome. As the pair try to herd 2,000 head across an unforgiving landscape, they become spiritually entwined with the plight of the Lost Generation, the outcast cast of mixed-ethnicity children stolen into government work camps. And if minor social deconstruction mixed in with the old-fashioned excitement of epic chase scenes, espionage and mystery isn’t enough to inch you to the edge of your seat, all of this is back dropped by the Japanese invasion of Australia in World War II.

The script, co-penned by Luhrmann, quickly bites off almost more than it can chew, weaving a multitude of sub plots in, around and throughout the central narrative. The story, manifestly an exploration of romantic and familial love, trips one too many times over a messy secondary story involving the mystic practices and culture of the country’s Aborigines. But even this sloppy seconds is topped with a brilliant investigation and dissection of cultural identity crisis, seen in the tortured musings of Nullah, the confused “creamy” Ashley tries adopting.

Altogether “Australia” is a colorful melting pot of everything that Luhrmann loved about Hollywood as a boy. He stirs all his favorite elements from the classics into a frenzy, whipping up a cinematic feast plagued by a few bitter tastes. But even the hokiest moments of the film are safeguarded by a vibrant pomposity and a stubborn devotion to the pure magic of movies. Luhrmann infuses himself in the film, imbuing it with his same eccentric charm and extravagance. At times this may be shameless entertainment, a melodrama that is simultaneously preposterous and overblown. But damn is it entertaining!

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.