[Screen It]

(2008) (Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman) (PG-13)

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Drama: An English woman takes over her late husband's cattle ranch in Darwin, Australia, and must not only contend with her rival and a disgruntled former employee, but also falling for her drover, all as the continent and its people are drawn into WWII.
It's 1939 and Lady Sarah Ashley (NICOLE KIDMAN) isn't pleased that her husband spends his time raising cattle and who know what else on his ranch in Darwin, Australia, so she's headed there from England to shut the place down. When she arrives at the remote Faraway Downs, however, she discovers that her husband has been murdered and the ranch is in disarray.

Its manager, Neil Fletcher (DAVID WENHAM), claims aboriginal magic man, King George (DAVID GULPILIL), is the murder suspect. But Nullah (BRANDON WALTERS), Fletcher's illegitimate, half-white, half Aborigine boy and King George's grandson, claims his father has secretly been transporting the ranch's best cattle to rival cattleman King Carney (BRYAN BROWN) who wants to sell them and his herd to the Australian government via Captain Emmett Dutton (BEN MENDELSOHN).

Infuriated by that and his abuse of Nullah, Sarah fires Fletcher, a move that doesn't sit well with her drover (HUGH JACKMAN), particularly since it doesn't appear the likes of perpetually intoxicated Kipling Flynn (JACK THOMPSON) will be of much use to them in herding the cattle to Darwin. Besides, since Drover associates with aborigines such as Magarri (DAVID NGOOMBUJARRA), he doesn't have the best reputation among the town's elite or hired hands such as Bull (RAY BARRETT).

Nevertheless, Sarah convinces Drover to lead their ragtag group, including Nullah, in herding their cattle to Darwin. Along the way, the two must not only contend with Fletcher's attempts to sabotage them, but also a change in how they feel about each other, as well as the onset of WWII and the pending Japanese attack on Darwin.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Despite the global title that suggests otherwise, many people -- particularly those born many decades after the fact and who haven't gone through a comprehensive world history program in school -- view WWII as an event with a limited number of national players. The villains, of course, were the original Axis of evil (German, Japan and Italy), while the heroes included the Americans, Russians and British.

In reality, of course, some of the "good guys" did bad things, while there were many more countries that contributed to the winning cause, but have largely been forgotten or overlooked in the eyes of many outside their borders. One such nation was Australia, which not only entered the war before others of note, but also lost tens of thousands of men during it, and was directly attacked for the first time in its history by, of all things, the same forces that bombed Pearl Harbor.

That all but forgotten (at least to the outside world) event is one of several big parts of "Australia," director Baz Luhrmann's epic pic that also touches on a barely heard of, but decades old scandal regarding the country's abandoned treatment of half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian children. And it goes for the trifecta of the forgotten past by trying to resurrect the Hollywood romantic epic of old where star power, big historical events and melodrama collide in what's supposed to be a crowd-pleasing fashion.

Viewer response will likely vary wildly for this decidedly old school production penned by Luhrmann along with Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan. And that's due to the filmmakers trying to cram a heck of a lot of story, thematic material, real life history and, of all unnecessary things, a surprising and repetitive bit of homage to a legendary film not to mention various tonal shifts into the offering's 145-some minute runtime.

The film begins with onscreen titles briefly portraying the "lost generations," those mixed ethnicity kids fathered by Caucasians and then taken from their aboriginal mothers to serve white families. With that followed by voice-over narration from one such young character -- Brandon Walters in the pic's most memorable role as a boy stuck between such horrible policy and his ancestral past (embodied by David Gulpilil as a grizzled, tribal magic man) -- the movie initially appears it will be all about him.

Which would have been a good thing, but desirous of resurrecting that epic romance vibe of old featuring some big Hollywood guns, the filmmaker allows the old-timey characters played by Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman to hijack the story. Not only is theirs a less interesting saga, but Luhrmann nearly makes the fatal mistake of initially trying to present those portrayals along the lines of a screwball romantic comedy the kind of which they don't make any more.

And that's for good reason as while they might have worked in the past, they feel artificial nowadays. The director's attempt to recreate the zany and madcap aura that permeated many of them creates an unwelcome and awkward vibe that nearly derails this effort right from the get-go.

The same occurred in "Moulin Rouge!" that also featured Kidman doing a similar if higher strung bit of purposefully over the top goofiness. Yet, whereas the overacting, zippy camera and forced zaniness only diminished as that effort wore on (thus allowing it to get better with each such moment of absence), it completely evaporates here. Although that similarly allows this film to improve, it makes one ponder what Luhrmann is trying to accomplish with such introductory (and essentially throwaway) moments, and why that tone is then completely abandoned this time around.

What doesn't go away is a recurring bit of homage (and then some) to "The Wizard of Oz." I understand the thematic, cinematic metaphor he's employing (a kid stuck between two worlds), but it gets to be a bit much, not to mention too repetitive with each such occurrence.

The last thing you want to do when making a wannabe epic, and one that ultimately isn't as grand as one's intentions, is remind viewers of a better and well-recognized predecessor. Yet, that's exactly what occurs here, not only concerning "TWoZ," but also "Gone With the Wind," another romantic epic of would-be lovers at odds during a war. That film is never directly referenced, but clearly casts a shadow over this imitator of sorts.

All of that said, the pic still occasionally manages to be somewhat mesmerizing and various scenes continue to rattle about in this weary mind, no doubt helped by the often glorious cinematography provided by Mandy Walker. From the desolation of the cattle ranch and deserts to the Japanese attack on Darwin, the pic is filled with memorable and often powerful visuals. And once the zaniness eventually disappears, the performances by the big leads turn out to be okay, with decent ones delivered by the supporting cast.

Even so, the pic ends up feeling both too long and too short regarding all that the cast and crew are trying to accomplish. As it's clearly not the magnificent epic it so wants to be, I'd obviously have preferred a truncated and tighter version. Who knows, maybe that's what we're actually getting here. Whatever the case, the sprawling and ambitious pic will likely go down as yet another piece of Australian history, big and costly, but ultimately forgotten by most. "Australia" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 19, 2008 / Posted November 26, 2008

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