This epic from visionary filmmaker Baz Luhrmann is a romantic action adventure, set in ‘the Big Country’ on the explosive brink of World War II. At the farthest end of the world, a woman sets out in search of her husband and finds herself plunged into upheaval and adventure beyond her wildest imagination. Icy aristocrat, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) is convinced that her husband is cheating on her, and stubbornly decides to journey from London to the remote tropical outpost of Darwin to confront him. Her reluctant guide through the vast, unforgiving terrain of the Northern Territory is the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rough-hewn cattleman as rugged as the Lady is refined. Their profound mutual dislike is tempered by tragedy when Sarah suddenly finds herself caring for a young orphan called Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy adrift in a segregated society that treats him as an outcast. Meanwhile, Faraway Downs is on the edge of ruin, and scheming station manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) is plotting with cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) to hasten its demise and take over the property themselves. To save the farm, Sarah must join forces with the Drover and drive 1,500 head of cattle across Australia’s breathtaking yet brutal landscape. Along with Nullah, they are joined on their quest by a mistfit band of ranch hands and homesteaders, including alcoholic accountant Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), the Drover’s trusted Aboriginal stockmen Magarri (David Ngoombujarra) and Goolaj (Angus Pilakui), and a mysterious tribal magic man known as King George (David Gulpilil). But when the sinister machinations of war reach the shores of Australia, Sarah and her unlikely new family are torn apart.
“To the rest of the world, Australia is the faraway of the faraway,” says Luhrmann. “There’s a great line in the beginning of ‘Out of Africa,’ when Karen Blixen finds out that her husband is having an affair and she says, ‘I’ve got to get away, I’ll go anywhere. Africa, Australia…well, maybe not Australia.'” Luhrmann grew up in a small lumber town in northern New South Wales, where his family ran a farm, the local gas station and, for a short time, the movie theatre. “The movie musical was a great childhood love of mine, but I was also a big fan of the historical epic,” he says. “Epics were the kind of movies that you would hear about for weeks before the films actually arrived, and every single person in town would go to see them.” In the tradition of films like Casablanca, Titanic and Gone With The Wind, Luhrmann’s Australia attempts to present as a metaphor for the feelings of mystery, romance and excitement conjured by a distant place where people can transform their lives, and spirits can be reborn. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. Clocking at nearly three hours, this is a spectacular film with some stunning scenery but lacking much in the chemistry and writing departments. While the cast deliver mostly memorable performances, particularly the resident witch doctor who can ward off just about any ill, it is with the lead role that the film loses its way. Kidman is particularly ill served in a part where she over plays the stuffed shirt far too much. With poor dialogue, bad dress sense, and a hairstyle that, from this male point of view, doesn’t do her a bit of good, she seems lost in a role that’s clearly beyond her. This would have been perfect for Cate Blanchett – an Aussie capable of the epic style required. Jackman, on the other hand, is terrific as the tough man of the Outback – a mix of Crocodile Dundee’s rugged charm and Russell Crowe’s manly presence. While Luhrmann does manage to portray the land of his birth in all its varied climates including the nobility of the Aboriginals and their habitat with gusto to the inspired chords of a stirring soundtrack, it is consistently let down by a plotline that veers far too often into over-sentimentality. The scenic splendour won’t do the Australian Tourist Industry any harm at all – but, at three hours in length, it’s almost as long, and exhausting, as the plane journey to get there.