Strict­ly speak­ing, Baz Luhrmann has made only one musi­cal, the Dork Report guilty plea­sure Moulin Rouge (2001). But, last seen direct­ing Puccini’s opera La Bohème on Broad­way, he can’t seem to resist the genre. Strict­ly Ball­room (1992), Romeo + Juli­et (1996), and now Aus­tralia all incor­po­rate key ele­ments of the musi­cal: exag­ger­at­ed emot­ing, spec­ta­cle, and espe­cial­ly, songs. Aus­tralia direct­ly quotes whole num­bers from The Wiz­ard of Oz, but is actu­al­ly bet­ter described not as Luhrmann’s Oz but as his Gone With the Wind. Which is to say, its an over­long cos­tume dra­ma faint­ly con­de­scend­ing towards its non-white char­ac­ters and pre­oc­cu­pied with the epic spec­ta­cle of cities burn­ing dur­ing wartime.

Australia’s biggest flaw is struc­tur­al, being essen­tial­ly two dis­crete movies fea­tur­ing the same char­ac­ters. Imag­ine a dou­ble fea­ture of a movie and its sequel, smashed togeth­er into one. The first half con­cerns the Aus­tralian mar­ket for cat­tle need­ed to sup­port the Allies’ war effort. Eng­lish­woman Lady Ash­ley (Nicole Kid­man — a native Aussie who even here has to affect a false accent) owns a small ranch in the out­back, and believes her absent hus­band is cheat­ing on her. She trav­els down under to sell the land in order to pay down debt, but also to rid her hus­band of what she imag­ines to be his adul­ter­ous refuge. There, she learns he has been mur­dered by the monop­o­liz­ing “King” Carney’s (Bryan Brown) hench­man Neil Fletch­er (David Wen­ham, Faramir in Lord of the Rings).

Nicole Kidman in AustraliaBlast it! This war is a spot of both­er.

She meets the hunky Drover (Hugh Jack­man), a man whose name is his job, whose job is his name, and the sort of fic­tion­al Aus­tralian that actu­al­ly says “Crikey” (q.v. Croc­o­dile Dundee). Audi­ence mem­bers inter­est­ed in the beef­cake fac­tor will be delight­ed to see Jack­man has built up his body to a size even big­ger than for the Cana­di­an mutant super­hero Wolver­ine in three (soon to be four) X-Men films (although the neck-to-head ratio threat­ens to tip over into freak­ish ter­ri­to­ry). Lady Ash­ley also befriends the film’s nar­ra­tor, the young “half-caste” boy Nul­lah (Bran­don Wal­ters, so extra­or­di­nar­i­ly androg­y­nous that I had to keep remind­ing myself he was not a girl). Nul­lah spent most of the movie thor­ough­ly annoy­ing the hell out of me as he shouts out the name “Drover! Yay Drover! Drover, Drover, Drover, yay!” over and over and over again. Ugh.

Nullah’s grand­fa­ther, a mys­ti­cal Abo­rig­i­nal known as King George (David Gulpilil), has been framed for Lord Ashley’s mur­der. He watch­es over Nul­lah from afar, and encour­ages him to become a sto­ry­teller. The fact that we are being told this sto­ry by a lit­tle boy to some degree explains and excus­es the cast’s ham­my mug­ging (most espe­cial­ly by Kid­man, of whom I am swift­ly tir­ing, although I was nev­er real­ly a hater) and how, on the whole, every­one seems to take death pret­ty well. After los­ing Lady Ashley’s hus­band and Nullah’s moth­er, our gang of heroes is only real­ly upset by the death of Kipling Fly­nn (Jack Thomp­son), an alco­holic col­lab­o­rat­ing with Car­ney. They are moved per­haps because he is giv­en a chance to redeem him­self right in front of them (as opposed to, say, an inno­cent per­son dying off­screen).

Hugh Jackman in AustraliaCrikey! Get along, lit­tle wal­la­bies!

Lady Ashe­ly finds she can make more mon­ey by tend­ing the ranch and sell­ing its cat­tle. Not to men­tion to effect a tri­fold moral vic­to­ry: aveng­ing her husband’s mur­der, beat­ing the local monop­oly, and right­ing a whole host of injus­tices made against the lit­tle boy. Nullah’s white father sex­u­al­ly exploit­ed and mur­dered his moth­er, and if that weren’t trou­ble enough, the state wish­es to abduct her and “breed the black out of her.” Such was offi­cial Aus­tralian pol­i­cy until the 1970s; for a much bet­ter film along these themes see Phillip Noyce’s huge­ly affect­ing Rab­bit Proof Fence (2002).

All this fuss and to-do is large­ly resolved and winds down about 1 hour and forty min­utes in, the length of a typ­i­cal movie. But Aus­tralia is no typ­i­cal movie, and has about anoth­er hour and half to go. The hap­py sur­ro­gate fam­i­ly liv­ing togeth­er on the ranch must work itself all the way back up into an all-new con­flict: the return of the vil­lain­ous Fletch­er for his revenge. The tur­moil of World War II is reduced to an arbi­trary incon­ve­nience to the char­ac­ters as they fight to restore their new makeshift fam­i­ly.

The movie is full of not-always-con­vinc­ing com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed spec­ta­cle like cat­tle stam­pedes and Japan­ese kamikaze attacks. But one fleet­ing lit­tle shot caught my eye and remind­ed me why I like Luhrmann so much. Watch for a brief moment as a vel­vet cur­tain drops, and Luhrmann invis­i­bly cuts to the reverse angle. Classy and cool.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.