Fox // 2008 // 165 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // March 3rd, 2009
"This land has a strange power."
Is Australia a Western transported to the island continent, a war drama, or a story about destiny? All three, actually. Co-writer Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl) and co-writer/director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) took on a lot with their epic story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!) and her adventures in The Land Down Under, giving viewers a trilogy in one part.
In the early days of World War II, Lady Sarah Ashley heads to Australia to sell the remote cattle station her husband has been operating, but gets there to find her husband dead. With the help of accountant Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson, Leatherheads), she finds that foreman Fletcher has been cooking the books to force a sale to King Carney (Bryan Brown, A Town Like Alice), a Darwin land baron. After she sees Fletcher (David Wenham, Van Helsing) abusing Nullah (Brandon Walters), an Aborigine boy, Sarah throws him off the station.
The military's buying cattle in Darwin, but with the foreman gone, Sarah isn't going to get her herd there, at least not without the help of Drover (Hugh Jackman, Van Helsing), a drover (naturally), and the rest of the station hands, including a surprisingly adept Nullah.
Sarah's troubles aren't over when the cattle reach Darwin, though. She has to deal with the treacherous Fletcher and authorities who want to take Nullah away. Meanwhile, Japanese planes are headed for Darwin.
For the first half of Australia, it looks like the standard Western, with the shady foreman sabotaging efforts to get the cattle to market and the land baron wanting to take over the station. Drover is even introduced amidst a saloon brawl. About halfway through, the story goes deeper, considering how Australians treated the Aborigines and the tension between ways old and new. Even then, you have to watch out for big overdone pyrotechnics as it shifts into war movie mode.
The bonds between Sarah, Drover, and Nullah are the glue that holds the movie together, even if the need to make Australia a big movie threatens to tear it apart. Hugh Jackman switches hats quite a bit, jumping from workaday drover to action hero to romantic to principled hero. Jackman's up to the task, seemingly seeing an unwieldy script as a chance to show his range; that attitude works. Whether action or drama, each plot thread demands and receives the same thing from Nicole Kidman: a demonstration of the hidden steel beneath her character's soft exterior. She handles it with a touch of old-fashioned melodrama; think Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle. Brandon Walters is both playful and determined as Nullah, who had a European father and a native mother, and must fight for his opportunity to learn traditional ways.
You'll also find well-played turns by David Wenham as Fletcher, who goes from calculating and slimy to insane, and Bryan Brown as King Carney, the land baron who might even admire the spunky Sarah.
The opening narration by Nullah and references to The Wizard of Oz and "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" reveal Baz Luhrmann's aim for a larger-than-life fable quality, which helps the movie get away with a lot of shifting moods. However, the movie does have a tendency to get in its own way, with the action often seeming to interrupt a more thoughtful picture. The end product isn't bad, but what could have been a great picture is diminished by the abrupt shifts between big, loud action and quiet drama.
Since it's a screener from Fox, my copy had some flaring and pixelation that I hope won't be present in the final release. The Australian scenery was great, although I suspect some of the action scenes had a little help from CGI.
There aren't many extras here, just two deleted scenes that no one will miss. A commentary would have helped me figure out whether I was on the mark about CGI action.
If you're a fan of Hugh Jackman, run out and buy this one. Although the cast was good overall, his ability to shift with the tides helped Australia keep my interest over nearly three uneven hours. If there were an Academy Award for smoothing over awkward spots in a movie, he'd have it on his mantle for this one.
Australia would probably be suitable for the whole family if not for one short bedroom scene that parents won't want to screen for the littlest ones.
Australia is an ambitious movie that, while not perfect, has some good performances and kept me interested throughout. It's worth a rental, especially if you like Westerns.
Guilty of an uneven script, but the acting wins it an acquittal.
Review content copyright © 2009 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 165 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes