November 27, 2008

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Australia (PG-13)
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman go somewhere over the rainbow to the magical land of Australia, both the name and the setting of this quirky Baz Luhrmann fairy tale.

Baz Luhrmann, the writer and director here, has a history of telling stories screwily — the emo William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, the old-fashioned post-modern musical Moulin Rouge!, the utterly darling Strictly Ballroom. All of these movies are alike in how they blend old-fashioned movie clichés with a kind of knowing wink at the audiences and a general sense of fun. Like the Moulin Rouge! mash-ups that mixed “The Sound of Music” with “Children of the Revolution,” Australia mixes Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz with, oh, name any cattle drive movie, and creates something extremely strange and rather lovely, all on an epic scale.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an upper-crust British woman who believes her husband is a little too adventure-seeking (adventure outdoors and in bed) and not enough money-managing at their ranch in Australia, decides to pay a visit in 1939, just as the world is on the edge of war, to straighten him out. Instead, when she finally reaches Faraway Downs, the name of the land they own, she finds him dead. Dead, so the ranch manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) says, at the hands of the aborigine known as King George (David Gulpilil). But cattle is a competitive business in the northern territory of Australia, and Sarah’s husband was the only person standing in the way of big-time cattleman King Carney (Byran Brown) setting any price he wants for his cattle (a big deal now that Great Britain is facing a war and needs cattle for its troops). After a lot of “well, I never”-type behavior from the prim Sarah, she begins to understand that getting her cattle to market is important to her future and, even though she fires the nefarious Fletcher, she decides to drive the cattle across the arid land to the port. Leading the cattle drive is Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rough-and-tumble cattleman whom Sarah first meets while he’s mid bar-brawl, pummeling his fellow cattlemen with her fancy luggage (causing it to crack open, causing her delicate English underthings to spill all over, causing Sarah to make high-pitched noises of injured aristocracy). Drover is joined on the drive by Sarah, his longtime partner Magarri (David Ngoombujarra) and a motley cast including a drunkard, a house-keeper and Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-Aborigine boy who takes an instant liking to Sarah. Whereas Dorothy, the point-of-view for the visit to the land of Oz, find herself suddenly whisked to a strange land, Nullah, the narrator here, finds a stranger — Lady Sarah, whom he calls Mrs. Boss — whisked into his land. When tragedy strikes his family, Sarah tries to cheer him up by singing some of the words of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song that becomes the oft-repeated theme of the movie. He takes to her mothering instantly and Sarah, who never had any children of her own, is surprised to find herself delighted to have a child to care for.

As the prim Sarah finds warms to Nullah, she also begins to heat up over Drover, who, of course, is not only ruggedly handsome on the outside but also sort of squishy and liberal on the inside. See, in a time when Australians looked down on Aborigines — Nullah, as a part-Aborigine, part-Anglo child, is constantly at risk of being captured and taken to a missionary school to be brought up in white culture — Drover is an equal opportunity kind of guy. His friends are mostly Aborigines and he refuses to accept the customs — like whites-only bars — that treat them as less-than.

And then, the Japanese show up to bomb everything.

Australia is a bit like a remake of Gone With the Wind where the main characters feel really bad about slavery and, maybe, get in a couple of bar fights over it. It has that sort of grand romance, the Technicolor wonder, the big-eyed gooey-hearted love for a place that a big from-a-native-director movie should, while still recognizing the immorality of certain recent-history local behavior. Australia is Casablanca where the enemy are fellow countrymen. It’s The Wizard of Oz with cows instead of flying moneys and “a cattle contract” instead of a trip back to Kansas. Australia borrows heavily, and openly, from the sweeping epics of the 1930s and 1940s but in a way that is surprisingly zanily entertaining rather than just derivative.

When we first land in Australia, the whole place looks like it’s straight off a vintage postcard, with people looking slightly sepia-toned. Later, we get full-screen shots of Drover rushing in to save the day or Sarah looking beautiful as the wind whips her hair and the sun causes it to gleam. It can be a little bit much if you don’t decide, fairly early, to just believe, the way Peter Pan asks everyone to believe in fairies. This is, after all, a fairy tale, with a beautiful princess, a handsome knight and a beloved little boy.

If you can accept the movie on this level, it works — the overheated performances, the giddy panoramic shots, the soaring soundtrack, the vividly colored landscapes. Kidman has enough comic abilities to carry off the requirements of her role — namely to seem overly prissy for the first third of the movie (her attempt to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is probably her best comic performance to date) and overly romantic for the last two thirds. Jackman is really only required to be dirty and handsome with occasional moments of sensitivity — he handles this just fine. Let him use his own accent, remove the metal claws and let him smile more and this is more or less the same character as Wolverine, the mutant he’s played in the X-Men movies.

This is an experience as much as it is a movie, similar to Moulin Rouge!, and, just like Moulin Rouge!, if you can’t buy into it, it will only torture you. And, with Australia, this is a particularly acute torture, as the movie lasts well over the two-and-a-half-hour mark and it by no means is brisk with its pacing.

So let’s do a test — if I tell you that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (including screen shots of a Judy Garland-as-Dorothy singing it in the 1939 The Wizard of Oz) becomes the theme of the movie in the most melodramatic way, do you think “ugh” or “cute”? If you said “ugh,” this movie probably will have you fidgeting in your seat, itching to point out all the contrivances. If you can — even just secretly, to yourself — accept a world populated with happy little bluebirds (or, in this case, happy bounding kangaroos), Australia might just dazzle you enough with its spectacle to allow you to forgive some of its excesses. B-

Rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language. Directed by Baz Luhrmann and written by Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan and Luhrmann, Australia is an hour and 45 minutes long and opens in wide release on Wednesday, Nov. 26. It is distributed by 20th Century Fox.