Movie Information

The Story: A prim Englishwoman teams up with a rough Australian drover to save her murdered husband's cattle ranch from financial ruin. Romance and World War II follow. The Lowdown: A deliberately unrealistic, larger-than-life old-school epic that's constantly engaging, beautiful to look at and more emotionally engaging than it probably has a right to be. A big screen must-see.
Genre: Romantic Epic
Director: Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil
Rated: PG-13

It’s big and a bit dumb, utterly fantasticated and completely romanticized. It’s also kind of wonderful. Whether or not Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is a great film, it is one hell of a movie. I say that as a compliment. I also note that it’s old-fashioned—and that, too, is a compliment. The word “epic” gets tossed around these days with alarming frequency—to describe every effects-driven, big-budget behemoth that lumbers into town. It also gets used as a barometer of quality, which is even more absurd. Cecil B. DeMille’s movies were largely epics. They were also largely bad (camp value notwithstanding).

Australia truly is epic—and in a good way. In fact, it’s an epic in several good ways. It has the kind of sweep and wide-ranging geographical sense of an epic. The story and the characters are all larger than life. The scope of its ambition knows no bounds. It trades in the same kind of heightened romanticism as Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, with all that implies. There’s an innocence about both—a lack of cynicism and irony—that’s refreshing in modern film. Luhrmann’s worldview has a charming simplicity to it that somehow transcends itself to reveal less simple themes, rendering them marvelously lucid by not intellectualizing them. And Luhrmann puts forth his ideas in a straightforward manner (even if his style isn’t).

Much of Moulin Rouge! can be summed up in the altered lyrics of Marc Bolan’s “Children of the Revolution”: “No matter what you say, the show is ending our way. So stand your ground for freedom, beauty, truth and love.” The resonance of those words is incalculable. Here, much can be reduced to the film’s line, “Just because that’s the way things are doesn’t mean that’s how they should be.” Once again, the simple idea put forth so directly goes to the heart of the matter and the story in a way that imparts a weightiness to something that might otherwise be little more than an outburst—though admittedly a very beguiling one—of cinematic fireworks.

Comparisons to Moulin Rouge! don’t end there. Despite the idea that Australia represents a shift from Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy (comprised of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!), the approach is similar. Moulin Rouge! was a love letter to (mostly) 1960s and 70s pop music, the whole “All you need is love” mind-set of the counterculture of which the songs were a defining part, and also the musical romance. Australia is a love letter to classic epic movies as well as a love letter (if not an entirely uncritical one) to Luhrmann’s personal vision of the country itself. Great set pieces replace musical numbers against which the central romance is played. It’s not even much of a stretch to say that the Aborigines of Australia are a variant on the Bohemians of Moulin Rouge!. Luhrmann even copies the structure of the last part of his previous film: There’s a gunman attempting to kill an unsuspecting victim out of revenge with outside parties working to intercede in a deus-ex-machina manner.

The plot is deliberately simple and very much a movie plot—or perhaps plots. The whole “hate at first sight” that turns to respect and then to love, played by his quintessential movie star leads (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman), is classic Hollywood. So too is the thawing of Kidman’s “ice princess” and her growing attachment to the half-caste little boy (newcomer Brandon Walters), who serves as the underpinning of the film’s concerns about racism in Australian history.

Luhrmann has combined the elements of the Western and the war movie by dividing the movie into two parts (it really needed an intermission). There are echoes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) and even The Wizard of Oz (1939)—this last makes splendid sense in context, especially given the film’s open-faced acceptance of Aboriginal magic and mysticism, as well as the fact that for Kidman’s initially uptight Englishwoman, Australia truly is “somewhere over the rainbow.” All of it is used as a background to romance and the framework for at least four magnificent set pieces: a cattle stampede, the delivery of the cattle, a fancy ball and the bombing of Darwin.

There is a thematic quality at the heart of Luhrmann’s epic—concerning racism, sexism and the abuses of the Australian government against the indigenous people—and these are as keenly felt as anything of similar nature in the more socially conscious films of John Ford, like The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Donovan’s Reef (1963). There’s also something of the “thinking man’s” epics of David Lean here. I think the ideas are even more trenchant in Luhrmann’s film because they are almost subordinated to the grandeur of his visuals. They sting against the scope and beauty of it all, making them more powerful than any amount of speechifying could have done.

Australia is a cornucopia of romance and grandeur of a kind the world could stand a little more of. Whether or not it’s a great film hardly matters. That it’s gorgeous, rich, lush and possessed of a generousness of spirit, on the other hand, does. Rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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9 thoughts on “Australia

  1. Steven

    I’ll be seeing this movie later on today.

    Is Milk not coming out this Friday?

  2. Ken Hanke

    Milk is not slated for Asheville until the 12th or 19th (I forget which).

  3. Wes

    Nice review. I really enjoyed “Australia,” in no small part because it’s a wonderful feeling to be moved by another culture’s patriotism – it helps put one’s own in perspective. Of note this week in all the critic’s columns is that this movie opened opposite “Transporter 3,” and it seems that everyone who has written on both has heaped praise on one and dismissed the other. Which is which tells you a great deal about the aesthetics of that critic, naturally.
    I can’t say for sure if I’m really a fan of Luhrmann’s filmmaking, but his use of music, the mash-ups of “Moulin Rouge!” in particular, is stunning, and this movie was worth the time (I totally agree about the need for an intermission!) for the climactic layering of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Ave Maria,” and aboriginal magic singing alone. I’ve read several reviews comparing “Australia” to “Red River,” “Gone With the Wind,” and “Wizard of Oz,” the last being something of a given, but I have yet to see anyone mention “Once Upon a Time in the West,” which I found myself thinking of constantly while watching “Australia.” The sense of a cultural foundation myth pervaded my experience of the film – from the unlikely partnership of an English aristocrat, an outback cowboy and an aboriginal holy man springs the mighty Australia! Luhrmann’s use of these archtypical characters reminded me more of Leone’s than of Hawks’ or DeMille’s, perhaps because it seemed more self-consciously mythical.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Luhrmann’s use of these archtypical characters reminded me more of Leone’s than of Hawks’ or DeMille’s, perhaps because it seemed more self-consciously mythical.

    You could well be right. I don’t know. I think I have seen one review mention Once Upon a Time in the West, but I could be misremembering. I suspect — based simply on things Luhrmann has said — that it’s probably a case of arriving at something by accident. I can’t say. Leone’s a little slow-moving for my taste as a general rule, though after watching Duck, You Sucker for a review, I did pick up Once Upon a Time in the West — now, when I’ll get around to it is a separate question.

  5. TJ

    I thought the movie was wonderfully done, and it didn’t seem like it was a nearly 3 hour epic — maybe that was because of the company I was with. Anyway, I cried twice — Titantic couldn’t even do that!! Kiddman and Luhrmann have done it again!

  6. Ken Hanke

    I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s actually seen Australia who didn’t like it, but the problem is that so relatively few people seem to be seeing it. Considering that people are flocking to Four Christmases and Twilight, this is particularly disheartening.

  7. MCP2012

    I concur whole-heartedly with Ken Hanke’s last comment. This film has been unfairly panned by snooty, snobby film critics. OK, yeah, it’s a bit corny (heck, even kitsch-ish and campy at times), but I think that is at least some of the time knowing and intentional on Baz’s part. And while Nicole Kidman doesn’t do Oscar nomination work her, give the kid a break: She was pregnant filming in the frickin’ Outback for heaven’s sake. Jackman gives one of the best performances of his career so far. And Aussie film stalwarts Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson are typically splendid in their (reasonably well-written) supporting roles, especially Thompson. And yeah, David Wenham’s character is perhaps played a bit too Snidely Whiplashy, but not painfully so. And David Gulpilil is–more or less literally–in his element as an Arnhemland Elder/Shaman, and turns in a typically fine, and I think, nuanced performance.

    But it’s adorable, handsome, wonderfully talented Brandon Walters–yet another Aboriginal kid from the Dampier Peninsula (whence came the beautiful, extraordinary Everlyn Sampi, star of Phillip Noyce’s superb take on the Stolen Generations, *Rabbit-Proof Fence*)–who is the heart of this film–and quite handily steals the show!! A shy little bloke from Broome gained *confidence* (so says his mother) from having done the role. And he might just get an Oscar nomination for it, so natural and moving is his performance. Good on ya, little mate!! (Nearly everyone that I spoke with after having seen the movie wanted to adopt Brandon, or at least Nullah, his character.)

  8. Mollie

    I thought Australia was very good, indeed. Rather long though. It’s usually not such a good thing when I notice how long a movie is, and further taking it as a bad thing, seeing how much I love film. The pacing could have been a little bit better. Kidman was fantastic, though I wasn’t surprised. And I agree with you, MCP2012, this was probably Jackmans’s best film so far. This movie captured the history of Australia wonderfully and Brandon Walters what simply fantasic. A great movie, and a movie that made me that more excited about my trip this summer to Australia.

  9. As a fan of the epic genre, I have to say that AUSTRALIA is a movie of a lost art. While it may not be within David Lean territory, it definitely has the feel of the Samuel Bronston productions from the early 60’s (KING OF KINGS, EL CID, and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE), which, as Martin Scorsese put it once, had a greater sense of frankness in terms of historical value (a transition from Hollywood-based decorum and absurdities), a more down-to-earth monumental scale (with brilliant pre-CGI battles), and deeply-felt emotional impact. Why can’t we get more epics like those?

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