Andy Bockelman: ‘Australia’ is an epic bore
The 1930s had “Gone with the Wind,” the ’60s had “Cleopatra” and the ’90s had “Titanic.”
Although “Australia,” the new millennium equivalent, may not have the same running time as its predecessors, it will test the patience of a good many audience members.
In 1939, British noblewoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels to the Australian cattle ranch Faraway Downs owned by her husband (Anton Monsted) in order to convince her spouse to sell the property. Her reception by a seasoned cattleman known only as “The Drover” (Hugh Jackman) gives her a poor first impression of the continent, but she is completely anguished once they arrive on the struggling estate to find her husband dead.
Sarah learns from a young Aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) who lives on the ranch that the property’s decline is because of the treachery of double-dealing manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), who is working for the area’s rival cattle baron. After terminating Fletcher’s services, Sarah will need the help of The Drover in order to make any profit from the still-healthy livestock.
She convinces him to drive the herd to the port city of Darwin in the northeastern part of the country, but the harsh climate proves to be a test for everyone involved, and Fletcher and his cronies have no intentions of letting them make it to their destination. Despite all these hardships, love starts to blossom between Sarah and The Drover, throwing both their lives into upheaval.
Kidman gives a steady performance as the headstrong, ambitious lady who quickly acclimates to her newfound surroundings in The Land Down Under. Jackman is a little less believable as the man with whom she finds a new life – his attempt to be both a craggy, rugged outdoorsman and a sensitive lover quickly become laughable.
Debuting young actor Walters – of genuine Aboriginal descent – functions well as the child who ties them together, but in his role as the film’s narrator, he is stretched too thin. The issue of Nullah’s mixed-race heritage as Fletcher’s bastard son helps drive the story as strongly as The Drover commanding his bovine charges, but hearing him explain everything happening is quite redundant because little is left to the imagination.
Aussie director Baz Luhrmann always has striven to emphasize the aesthetics of his films, exemplified by the quasi-Shakespearean “Romeo + Juliet” and the gleefully anachronistic “Moulin Rouge!”
His newest feature is no exception in terms of artistic direction as he captures gorgeous, sprawling scenery and fantastic chemistry between his romantic leads. Luhrmann’s depiction of the time period is drastically different from his former films for the better, as he attempts to keep characters realistic.
This gets far too sticky with Nullah, who believes he has magical powers like his grandfather, King George (David Gupilil), renowned as the area’s witch doctor. It is this element of the story that gets preachy as we are constantly bombarded by the overstated moral about the treatment of Aborigines in the 20th century.
Besides its heavy-handed message, the film has far too many distracting secondary characters, none of which warrant any kind of attention, except perhaps Sarah’s boisterous, drunken accountant, Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson). The “Pearl Harbor”-like third act leads us to wonder if Luhrmann has been taking lessons from Michael Bay.
At almost three hours in length, the draggy, clunky presentation of “Australia” will have you saying, “Crikey!” after the first 30 minutes. Its visual triumphs mean little when its story is so splintered that a desert scene with kangaroos becomes the most engaging part of the movie.