(20th Century Fox) Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil. Directed by Baz Luhrmann
The land down under is equal parts mystery and intrigue to American audiences. Beautiful beyond description, her history is more or less ignored here in the States. Most of us know little about the land and the history of Australia beyond what we’ve seen in the Crocodile Dundee movies.
Lady Ashley (Kidman), an English noblewoman, has taken the long journey to Australia to discover the truth to the rumors about her husband, who it has been said is philandering. He is in Oz to run a cattle ranch called Faraway Downs. He is in direct competition with a cattle baron named King Carney (Brown) for a government contract with the English Army. It is 1939, after all, and World War II has just begun and the English Army will need beef and plenty of it.
When she arrives, she finds that her husband is freshly murdered and that she is now in charge of a cattle ranch that is larger than some European countries. When she dismisses Fletcher (Wenham) for cruelty to the aboriginal staff, particularly a young boy named Nullah (Walters) she finds herself in a terrible position.
The prim and terribly English Lady Ashley is an afternoon tea, croquet on the front lawn sort of gal, totally ill-equipped to deal with the rough and tumble Australian cattle industry. Although most of the English in Darwin are urging her to sell the ranch to Carney, she realizes if she can get the 1500 head of cattle to Darwin she might still save the ranch. Without any experienced hands to drive the cattle, she enlists Drover (Jackman), a roguish sort who is at first skeptical of their chances but despite the best efforts of Fletcher (who now works for Carney) to torpedo them, they get the cattle to market and win the contract.
Ashley and Drover are also falling for one another despite all the odds against them. She prevails upon him to manage the ranch which he does reluctantly, leaving from time to time to earn money driving cattle. In the meantime, Nullah has also won her affections but he spends much of his time dodging the authorities who want to remove him to a missionary home, a common practice in Australia until 1973. His grandfather, King David (Gulpilil) who is also the man accused wrongfully of murdering Lady Ashley’s late husband, wants him to explore the aboriginal side of his culture and he’s torn between the two worlds.
But as in most epic love stories, the real world intervenes. The Japanese are preparing to invade Australia and Darwin will be the target of a massive bombing raid. Can Lady Ashley survive the Japanese bombs and keep her unique family together?
Director Baz Luhrmann, a proud Aussie, is both meticulous and avant garde in his filming. While he has done critically acclaimed movies like Moulin Rouge and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (neither of which I’m terribly fond of by the way), he has gone in a completely different direction here. He stated that he wanted to make the Australian Gone with the Wind and there are certainly elements of that here. One can’t fault him for his ambition.
The problem with ambition is that sometimes it leads to a lack of focus. Luhrmann has quite the stew here, with elements from all sorts of genres; westerns, war movies, romances, historical epics, social dramas and comedies. As nice as all of those things are, sometimes too many tastes can ruin a stew. It takes a deft hand to blend all that together and from time to time, Luhrmann shows he has that hand. There are other times when the mix can be overwhelming.
He does make a great use of the Australian countryside; you get a real taste of the vastness of the land there. It’s also refreshing to get a glimpse into a place in history that is rarely seen by American moviegoers. In all honesty I can’t say I’m all that familiar with Australian history and while this is a fictional piece, some of the elements here are historically accurate.
Given that the romance plays a central part of the film, the leads have to have chemistry. Fortunately, both Kidman and Jackman are appealing and do have the kind of romantic chemistry needed to make the movie work overall. Wenham and Brown make fine villains, and Gulpilil, who savvy moviegoers might remember from 1971’s Walkabout is a fine actor who is seen all too rarely these days.
The juvenile actor Walters is fair enough but he is used far too much here. He is meant to be the bridge between the aboriginal and white worlds but he narrates the movie and shows up in nearly every scene. A little less kid goes a long way.
While I’ve never been a big Baz Luhrmann fan I did quite enjoy this one. It’s got many of the qualities that I love about big, grand big-screen movies. This is the kind of movie that you can sit down happily, munch your popcorn and drink your soda and be transported to another place. If that isn’t the reason they invented movies, I don’t know what else for.
WHY RENT THIS: Depicts a period and place in history that Americans aren’t that familiar with. Leads, particularly Jackman, are appealing. Use of Australian scenery is compelling.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Walters is overused and sometimes derails the movie. The film is too much of a mish-mash; part Western, part war movie, part epic, part social commentary.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of sex, a little bit of language, a whole lot of violence and child endangerment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stock footage from the 1970 war film Tora! Tora! Tora! was used for the scenes depicting the Japanese attack on Darwin.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD has no special features although a special edition is expected eventually; the Blu-Ray does have a feature that compares the events in the movie to actual Australian history, utilizing archival footage.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby