Fox // 2008 // 165 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // March 16th, 2009
"Welcome to Australia!"
A scant seven years after co-writing and directing the critical and commercial smash Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann finally brings his bright colors and frantic editing back to the big screen with the epic Australia.
At the end of the 1930s in Australia, an English cattle station owner is murdered under mysterious circumstances. His wife, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, Birth), is left with a ranch, a cattle driver named Drover (Hugh Jackman, The Prestige), and fifteen hundred head of cattle that need to be transported to the Australian military. The ranch also comes with a small half-Aboriginal boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who has no parents but is eager to help out in any way he can.
Though transporting the cattle across the Australian outback is no easy feat, it's made all the more difficult by rival cattle-station owner King Carney (Bryan Brown, Cocktail) and treacherous cattle station manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, 300). On Lady Sarah and Drover's journey they will battle arson, poison, and the unforgiving elements of the Australian desert. Even if they do make it through the outback, will King Carney and Neil let the rivalry end there?
As the film's advertising has already shown, and as any Baz Luhrmann movie promises, Australia is a big, bold, beautiful film. A single scene has more bombast than most independent films can pack into 90 minutes. The landscape is breathtaking and the actors are gorgeous; it's just a shame the movie stinks.
Actually, more accurately, the movie is a mess. Australia is the kind of film only an established director, especially one considered a genius by many, could make. If any aspiring filmmaker brought this script into a workshop, it would be torn apart for lacking structure and character development. If Baz Luhrmann's name weren't attached, I couldn't imagine any investor putting forward $15 million, let alone the $150 million the film reportedly cost to make. In fact, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackson both signed onto the project without even seeing a script.
The film is three hours long, and packs what seems to be three or four distinct movies -- none of them very compelling -- within that running time. There is the cattle rustling story, the love story, the wayward Aboriginal-boy story, and then the World War II story, which seems especially tacked on. It would take a master storyteller to weave all these disparate elements into a cohesive plot, but Luhrmann seems more interested in putting a beautiful image on the screen or force-feeding the audience didactic lessons about tolerance than actually creating a compelling, insightful movie. The bonding between Nullah and Lady Sarah is more eye-rolling than tender, and the romance between Lady Sarah and the Drover is as predictable and perfunctory as anything you would find in a bad action movie.
The problem with these relationships is that nearly everyone in the movie is a caricature. Lady Sarah, Drover, and Nullah all seem to be enlightened individuals with hearts of gold who are preyed upon by evildoers that might as well be twirling their mustaches. Even the harsh treatment of Aborigines -- which was depicted with far more sophistication in the excellent Rabbit-Proof Fence -- seems exploited to elicit cheap emotional points.
All that said, Australia does have one saving grace, which is especially evident on Blu-ray: the movie looks spectacular. Luhrmann seems to consider the story an afterthought to the visual presentation, and he may be onto something. While following the story is tedious, the beautiful vistas of Australia, along with exquisite set design and costuming, make this one of the best-looking films I've ever seen. Perhaps if Lurhmann were to team up with an expert, low-frills storyteller -- such as John Sayles or Mike Leigh -- for his next film, the end result could be the greatest movie ever.
As mentioned, Australia is the kind of film that greatly benefits from being seen on Blu-ray. Australia is a breathtaking country in just about any resolution, but the 1080p picture here renders it in exquisite detail. The shots of cattle rustling through the outback are each composed like individual pieces of art, and there seems to have been some sort of extra processing of the night scenes that make the starry sky almost radiate. Additionally, Luhrmann infuses nearly every scene with vivid colors and costumes, making this movie an incredible palate for the eyes. It also doesn't hurt that Kidman and Jackman are two of the best-looking actors working today, though Kidman's face has been looking tighter and tighter with each passing year.
The sound on the disc is almost as equally impressive as the picture. When the cattle stampede, it really sounds like a herd of cows is running through my living room. When the Japanese attack, it really sounds like the bombs are dropping all around me. Even in the quieter outdoor scenes, Lurhmann made great use of his soundtrack, adding rustling and snorting, virtually recreating the sight and sounds of the film in our home.
As for supplements, the extras on the disc are humdrum. There are a handful of featurettes, including a dry history of the movie's filming locations, as well as several interesting behind-the-scenes looks at different elements of the film, such as sound, photography, etc. There are also two short deleted scenes. Though there isn't a whole lot here for fans of the film to dig into, the extras are presented in 1080p, so it's got that going for it.
As unimpressed as I was with Australia, I do realize that Luhrmann seems to have made the movie with a nod to the dramatic sensibilities of the year the film takes place. The characters are flat and the action and story are cloying because there was little subtlety and complicated character development in the 1930s. Fair enough. Fans of melodramas from that decade will probably find more to appreciate here than I did.
Australia may be easy on the eyes, but it's difficult on the rest of the faculties. The story goes on and on and on and the emotional manipulation is about as subtle as a kangaroo kick to the face. I suppose Luhrmann fanatics might be appeased by this beautiful-looking film, but it will make the rest of us as sleepy as koalas.
Guilty of putting style over substance.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 165 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site