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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
No Thunder Down Under
by Adam Hakari

It's not a good sign when the projectionist tells you to pack a lunch before watching a movie. This happened to me when I went to see Australia, a big slice of epic pie from director Baz Luhrmann. I took my friend's words with a grain of salt, since I enjoyed Moulin Rouge! -- Luhrmann's crazy revisionist musical and assumed he would employ similar stylistic flair to his latest project. Unfortunately, a rude awakening awaited me, for what begins as a plucky tribute to the sweeping epics of yore soon turns into a bloated example of melodramatic storytelling at its most taxing.

Australia starts off in the early days of World War II. Feisty socialite Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has had enough of her absentee husband, making the lengthy trek from England to Darwin, Australia to check on the cattle ranch he's become so engrossed in. But  Sarah's husband bit the big one, and local baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) is hell-bent on claiming the ranch and completing his strangehold on the Australian beef market. Of course, Sarah won't take this sitting down, so after recruiting a rugged cattle driver known as Drover (Hugh Jackman), she makes a decision to move her herd from the ranch to Darwin. Time, the elements, and Carney's lackeys are all working against Sarah, but she tries her hardest to persevere in spite of it all, even falling hopelessly in love with the dashing Drover in the process.

I understand what Australia is going for. It's a modern-day ode to classic Hollywood epics, movies that focused on the indominability of the human spirit even in the harshest of conditions. Unfortunately, the indominability of the human spirit can be about as interesting as watching cheese age, or at least that's how it comes across in this movie. Australia is not without ambition, for it shoots for the moon and beyond, convinced of its own ability to lug a pretty hefty thematic load. But the film overestimates its own strength, depending way too much on the story's backdrop to carry it to the finish line. It's a romance at heart, presented as a love for the ages, one enduring all kinds of hardships, a la Gone with the Wind. However, Luhrmann focuses most of his energy on playing up the film's spectacle, which ends up making Australia look fantastic while feeling emotionally hollow.

Although Luhrmann devises scenarios like Darwin's attack by the Japanese not long after Pearl Harbor, he never takes the time to do anything with them. Sure, he brings to light the Australian government's horrible treatment of half-Aboriginal children, but we already have Rabbit-Proof Fence, a film that covered it in a much more harrowing manner. The absence of a tongue-in-cheek spirit confirms the fact that Luhrmann unwisely took this project on with the straightest of faces, resulting in a dour, molasses-like pacing which  hinders the film's last couple of acts. On a visual front, though, Australia has it made, with some of the most gorgeous cinematography you'll see in a film this year. Luhrmann does a fantastic job capturing the beauty of the Australian wilderness (too bad nothing interesting happens in it). Plus, despite the hokey material, Kidman and Jackman each deliver crackerjack turns, with the latter doing an especially solid job of playing the picture's rough-and-tumble protagonist. Young Brandon Walters also pitches in a spirited performance as a half-breed child who aids Sarah and Drover on their journey.

Australia is not a bad movie. In fact, had the story been more flavorful and the characterizations not so one-dimensional, this Luhrmann offering could have been a big, burly, and bustling adventure. Instead, there's no thunder down under in his Australia. 

MY RATING: ** (out of ****)

(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language.)

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