Don't let anyone keep you from Australia. It's messy and overwrought, but ambition this grand is worth two hours and 40 minutes of Aussie scenery, history (fudged), romance and war.
It's a corny, old-fashioned epic with the usual digital compromises, but it's a gorgeous picture with genuine moist-eyed moments, most thanks to Nicole Kidman. And there aren't many actors who look as at home on a horse as Hugh Jackman.
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Director Baz Luhrmann's dream project, years in the making, is a memory of his native land during World War II. An Aboriginal boy narrates the tale and shows us a hard land that hardened the people, the war “Down Under” and the racism that Aborigines faced. Luhrmann tells of a love between a grizzled cattle “drover” and the tougher-than-she-looks British aristocrat who takes over her late husband's ranch and helps the drover get her cattle to market for the war effort.
Luhrmann starts with Red River, leaps to Lawrence of Arabia, then visits the Rabbit Proof Fence by way of The Wizard of Oz. He was going for an Aussie Gone With the Wind, but he sort of remade the classic 1946 Australian film The Overlanders.
It's 1939, the British Commonwealth is going to war, and Lady Sarah Ashley has trekked to Australia to fetch her husband. He's dead, and in an instant she finds herself in the middle of a second war — a cattle war. Bryan Brown is the cattle baron who wants to corner the market on meat for the military. Lady Ashley and her Faraway Downs are in the way. He has his ruthless right-hand man (David Wenham of 300). But Lady Ashley has The Drover.
Jackman takes over the picture as a man's man, master of his trade and catnip to the not-quite-grieving Lady Ashley. The cattle drive he leads has every cliché in the book — a Chinese cook, a drunken accountant (Jack Thompson) and a stampede. But they still work.
Luhrmann reminds us that he did Moulin Rouge in giving this epic musical touches, and magical ones. Brandon Walters is Nullah, the “creamy” mixed-race Aboriginal boy who tells the tale, learns Somewhere Over the Rainbow on the harmonica and explains Aboriginal traditions.
Epics don't look the way they used to, largely thanks to the digitization of things that used to be filmed the old-fashioned way — air raids and stampedes, for instance. But Australia has the best special effects of all — Australia itself, and Jackman, native son. If you're saying lines like this, it doesn't hurt to do them with that withering Wolverine scowl:
“I mix with dingoes, not duchesses.”